There are more than a million people buried in this graveyard. There are no stones or memorials to remember them. It’s not the biggest cemetery. That’s Calvary, in the borough of Queens.
This one is different though, it’s the final resting place in America’s biggest city for the people no one wants. It is also, aside from Manhattan, the oldest incorporated part of New York bought from the Hunter family for $75,000.
New York has been burying its unwanted dead since 1869 on this little island in Long Island Sound off the Pelham Bay Beach, in the Bronx. It’s a mile long and half a mile wide. About 100 acres, filled with the remains of people who range from street vagrants to a woman who was so rich, she was a neighbor of John Lennon in the famous Dakota apartment building overlooking Central Park.
And a man who was part of the Mafia.
In New York, a body not claimed within 48 hours, is often offered to medical schools or to organizations that do embalming training. The remains, after use, are then buried in Potters Field* on Hart Island.
The island previously administered by The Department, of Correction, and since December 2019, The Parks Department, was perhaps the only graveyard to use prison labor, and sometimes, scornfully referred to as “A prison for the dead.” The largest tax-funded paupers burial place in the world, that created a mythos about where the city disappeared its most defenseless.
He was lucky in one way. His original grave was a hole in the ground in woodland on Staten Island. That’s where he finished up after he was stabbed to death in a bar-room brawl on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He would have stayed there presumably, indefinitely, except for a man who was exercising his nosy dog one day.
Although the body was discovered, no one knew who it was. DNA profiling was available in 1997, but for some reason, it was not used to help identify the remains at that time. However, samples had been taken by the Medical Examiner’s Office, for future reference, and stored on the FBI DNA database.
Guiga went the way of all unclaimed cadavers-Potters Field.
He was 41 at the time he died-a low-level hoodlum, operating as an associate in one of the crews in the Bonanno Crime Family.
One of his killers was Nicholas Pisciotti.
He had started his mob career as an associate with the Lucchese Family Prince’s Street crew headed by Joe Di Palermo, a notorious Mafia drug trafficker. Along with his younger brothers, Charlie and Pete, he operated his business from a social club next to number 27, which was a pizza shop.
Not just any old pie place, but perhaps the most famous in New York, “Ray’s,”owned by Ralphie Cuomo, who was also part of the gang. He opened it in 1959 and although his name was Ralph, he called it Ray’s, thinking Ralph’s was too feminine.
After a four-year stint in prison for narcotics trafficking, Pisciotti, on his release, transferred to the Bonanno mob Family. His uncle, Charlie Musillo, was a capo there and pulled in favors for his nephew, who moved to a crew ran by big Frank Coppa, and was “made” into the Family in December, three months after the killing of Guiga.
Coppa would flip in 2002 and be the first of many in the Bonannos to cooperate with the government in exchange for a sentence reduction, including the boss himself, Joseph Massino, the first Mafia chief in American mob history to roll-over and become part of Team-America.
It had been a Mexican-style restaurant as early as 1982, when it was owned by a Czech called Rudy Mosney, who, following the liberation of East Berlin, decided to go back to Europe in 1989.
The little cafe under different owners eventually morphed into a bar, and it was here, on the evening of September 13, that Richie Guiga got into one fight too many in his drug-fueled, cantankerous life. He was, according to one source, “A violent, vicious coke user, the most obnoxious scum who ever walked the streets.”**
His mother, Rosanna, loved him though, and eventually, it was her DNA that matched the records the FBI had held all those years. She would, in 2007, be able to have his remains exhumed from Potters Field and committed to a Christian burial.
Pisciotti and his friend, Michael DeMaria, were running the bar that night. Both men were about the same age and had been childhood school friends growing up in Manhattan's Little Italy district. They were both drug dealers, extortionists, and thugs. DeMaria would earn his “button” into the Bonanno’s the same year Frank Coppa rolled over.
At the trial of Bonanno acting boss, Vincent Basciano, in Brooklyn, in July 2007, Pisciotti said Guiga got into a brawl in front of Bandito’s, and then came inside to have a drink. But the booze had the opposite effect. Agitated-and armed-he soon began slashing at Pisciotti and Michael DeMaria, with a knife, Pisciotti said.
“Richie wound up dropping the knife,” Pisciotti said. Then he hedged. “He wound up dying,” the mobster said. When prosecutor Amy Busa asked Pisciotti what happened to the knife when it fell, he replied, “I picked it up.”
When she asked who actually killed Guiga, Pisciotti said, “Probably both of us, me and Michael.”
Pisciotti and DeMaria hid the body in the basement of the bar for a couple of days, and then it was taken and buried on Staten Island.
Ironically, Rosanna Guiga had taught both Pisciotti and DeMaria when they were children at elementary school.
That Guiga was still around in 1997 speaks volumes about how bad the Mafia is at what it does.
In 1991, while he was serving a prison sentence, he was annoying an ex-girlfriend, who was now enamored of one Georgie “Neck” Zappola. He was a close confidant of Anthony Casso, controlling the Lucchese Family on behalf of the boss, Vittorio Amuso, who was doing a long stretch in prison. Guiga became a thorn in their side, and the Lucchese administration decided that he would go for the long drop.
Between 1991 and 1993, thirty-one members and associates of the crime family tried to kill him. They attempted at least twelve times, without success. One of the target spots was the basement of Ray’s Pizza place in Prince Street. Somehow, he avoided them all. He was either smart, or the gangsters were really stupid.
Jimmy Breslin wrote a book called “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” published in 1969, that could well have been a trailer for the comic activities of this bunch of inept killers roaming the streets of New York in search of a target.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare tells us, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.”
Metaphorically, Richie Guiga had a regiment after him, but in the end, it was all down to two thugs who were better at their job than he was.
Louisa Van Slyke, a twenty-four-year-old orphan, died of tuberculosis in Charity Hospital on Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island) without family or friends to claim her body. She was the first to be buried in Potters Field, in April 1869. An island for the undesirables.
Bobby Driscoll, the famous child actor of the 1940s and early1950s, was buried here after he died drug-addicted, penniless, and unclaimed in March 1968. In 1985, the first baby to die of AIDS in the city was buried on the island, and is the only grave marked by a tombstone. And thirty-five years later, the bodies, at least 100 each month, keep coming, an endless migration from life to death.
Although as David Bowie once said, “The truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.”
Potters Field, New York, is the largest pauper’s graveyard in the United States, where death of the most anonymous kind shapes a landscape as empty as the moon. Perhaps the only one to ever hold, for ten years at least, a victim of America’s Mafia underworld.
The term, using lower case or capital letter, (no one knows which is correct,) refers to a burial place for indigents-a pauper’s graveyard. There is no empirical evidence to support how the name arose, but there are hundreds of explanations, on and off-line. They exist, under different names, in most countries.
This short story uses some information from articles written by Jerry Capeci, the well-known New York- based Mob authority whose source I acknowledge.
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