America's First Mafia War:
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New Orleans, 1868‑1872
[Note: This article is an excerpt from Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia by Thomas Hunt and Martha Macheca Sheldon, published by iUniverse, 2007, and Createspace, 2010.]
On Wednesday evening, Oct. 28, 1868, the Innocenti political brigade suspended its violent Presidential election season rampages through Republican neighborhoods and headed indoors. Members held a large rally at the Orleans Ballroom on Bourbon and Orleans Streets. The purposes of the gathering were to honor Edward Malone, who fell victim to African American vengeance two nights earlier, and to celebrate the group's successful obstruction of French Quarter radical Republicanism.
Late in the evening, however, the gathering received devastating news, and only the presence of U.S. troops on the street corners prevented Innocenti commander Joseph P. Macheca from initiating another bloody march.
Twenty-seven-year-old Litero Barba, a leader in New Orleans' Little Messina colony and a member of the Innocenti, was heading alone to his Hospital Street home after leaving the Orleans Ballroom. As he reached the corner of St. Philip and Chartres Streets, he was struck in the chest and abdomen by a shotgun blast. He was dead shortly after hitting the ground.
A number of Barba's close friends believed Raffaele Agnello, boss of the local Mafia, was responsible for the killing.
Agnello arrived in New Orleans in 1860, one of the earlier Sicilian immigrants to reach American shores. He and his brother lived together for a time in the 5th Ward of the city - the central third of the French Quarter or Vieux Carré. The Agnellos appear to have had a Mafia pedigree from their home city of Palermo. Raffaele's prestige was enhanced by the U.S. Civil War. As federal forces moved into New Orleans in April 1862, Confederate military units and police forces were pulled out. Only the European Brigade of the state militia, of which Agnello was a prominent member, remained to keep order. Postwar immigration of western Sicilians into the city further strengthened Agnello. By 1868, he led one of three large gangs in the French Quarter. His rivals were an organization of immigrants from Messina on Sicily's east coast and the largely Sicilian Democratic militia known as the Innocenti. There was no clear dividing line between the organizations, as they shared a number of members in common.
That Agnello killed Barba in an effort to bring his rivals to heel made sense to many. But Agnello pointed an accusing finger at Octave Belot, an African-American cigar maker and Republican state legislator who lived on Claiborne Street. Agnello's version of the Barba killing appeared to be supported by rumors that Belot suddenly had left his home and was hiding with a family of freedmen (former slaves) somewhere in the Quarter. The hunt for Belot busied small bands of the Innocenti for several days. During that time, a number of the homes of New Orleans' African Americans were broken into, searched and robbed, and the Belot cigar shop on Claiborne and St. Anne Street was looted and destroyed.
As Election Day approached and the number of federal troops in the city climbed, Macheca received a letter from temporary police superintendent General James Blair Steedman, pleading for a cessation of Innocenti marches. Steedman argued that Innocenti violence was playing into Republican hands, as it was providing cause for a return to the days of federal occupation.
Major General Lovell Harrison Rousseau, commander of the U.S. Army's Department of the Gulf, personally appeared before an Innocenti meeting on Saturday, October 30th. A bulletin from New Orleans was published in newspapers around the country:
General Rousseau last night visited the club rooms of the "Innocents," the club which was most prominent in the recent troubles with the negroes, and in which considerable feeling still exists on account of the death and wounding of several of its members. In a short speech the general warned them that the responsibility for all outrages and disorders in New Orleans was laid on his shoulders, and that he looked to them to keep the peace and encourage others to do the same. He said he felt it his duty to tell them that the laws must be observed, and that every man who had the right to vote shall vote unmolested on Election Day. Gen. Rousseau was enthusiastically received by the club. The number of troops in the city is small.
Possibly feeling that recent events had provided him and his cause a measure of recognition, Macheca halted his organization's pre-election activities and began dismantling the Innocenti.
In November 1868, Octave Belot appeared at the office of Arthur Gastinel, one of the New Orleans magistrates known as "recorders" (a minor judge but superior to a justice of the peace). Accompanying Belot were several witnesses who testified that they had been with Belot on a trip out of town during the week of Litero Barba's murder. Recorder Gastinel found no basis upon which to charge Belot with the killing of Barba. He publicly announced that decision.
The local Messinesi, and the allied Trapanesi, began openly to attribute the murder to Raffaele Agnello. They believed Agnello's close friend Alphonse Mateo, also known as Minafo, "did up" Barba on orders from the Mafia boss.
Agnello's brother Joseph ("Peppino") tried to reassure the Messinesi. To illustrate the Agnello affection for the Messinian colony, Peppino held a large party at his home on Royal Street in mid-December. Little Palermo and Little Messina sent roughly equal numbers to the party.
The Matranga family and the rest of the city's immigrant Monrealesi apparently avoided the event.
At first, the party guests were subdued. Food and drink were consumed, music was played, but there were few signs of genuine gaiety. As midnight approached and some guests began to leave, Joseph Banano, the guardian of Messinian interests after the death of Barba, cornered Alphonse Mateo and demanded to know the circumstances of Barba's murder.
Mateo responded nervously and then suddenly reached down to pull a knife from under the leg of his trousers. At Mateo's first movement, Banano took a quick step backward, raised a pistol and fired it directly into the crouching Mateo's face. The bullet created a cavity where Mateo's nose had been and exited from the back of the victim's neck.
Banano and the remaining Messinesi rushed from the house as handguns opened fire all around them. Raffaele Agnello had his weapon drawn but did not fire until he had followed the crowd out of the house. Then he raised his large pistol and put a bullet into Banano's back. Several of the Messinesi saw their leader go down, ran back to him and carried him home.
Joseph Macheca appears to have sided with the Messinian faction in the ensuing feud, supplying them with weapons, ammunition and money. The morning following the Mateo and Banano shootings, a large number of booths at the French Market remained closed. Many of the Sicilian merchants, expecting another eruption of violence, stayed home. Giovanni Casabianca, of the Messina gang, and a couple dozen men carrying new Spencer repeating rifles arrived at the marketplace before dawn and waited for their rivals. But Agnello's followers all had been tipped off. That morning, Casabianca appeared to hold the upper hand, but there were tough times ahead.
The Palermitani, who had fought for Macheca in the Innocenti organization abandoned him, siding with Agnello. Macheca must have been startled by their wholesale desertion and impressed by their absolute loyalty to their "Uncle Raffaele." Over the winter, he would be awed by their level of organization as well as their determination.
The Messinesi quickly looked to return to business as usual, but the Palermitani would not have it. Armed bands loyal to Agnello gradually took back the marketplace and patrolled the levee in the French Quarter day and night. The Messinian merchants ceded the French Market. They brought their business instead to the Poydras Market about three miles away in the Faubourg Ste. Marie. Some became so fearful of Agnello's organization that they migrated to a budding colony of Messinesi in Galveston, Texas. Raffaele Agnello, too, went into hiding and communicated with his men through his brother and a crew of bodyguards.
On February 15th, 1869, Joseph Agnello and a band of Palermitani, including Alphonse Mateo who had miraculously recovered from his serious head wound, stormed a Messinian home on Chartres Street between Dumaine and St. Philip. As they broke through the front door, they drew peculiar hinged shotguns, known as luparas, from beneath their coats and opened fire at everyone within. Giovanni Casabianca and Joseph Banano, who like Mateo had bounced back from his December wounds, were hit by slugs as they leaped out a rear door with friend Pedro Allucho and two other men.
The Messinesi were not seriously hurt. However, it was clear they would be safe nowhere in the Crescent City. The attack prompted Casabianca, Banano and Allucho to hide for a month with friends in Galveston. There is some indication that Agnello allies hounded them even in Texas.
When Casabianca, Banano and Allucho returned from Galveston, they quietly resumed work at the Poydras Market. Raffaele Agnello quickly learned of their whereabouts and near the end of March sent an armed party led by his brother Joseph into the Faubourg Ste. Marie establishment to do them up. The Anglo-American patrons of the Poydras Market were horrified when the resulting Sicilian gun battle seriously wounded a bystander. Agnello's men managed to elude the police. Casabianca and Allucho, who drew their weapons to defend themselves, were charged with causing the bloodshed in the marketplace and were locked up in Orleans Parish Prison.
Grocer David Clark was the bystander hurt in the Poydras Market gunfight. He suffered a gunshot wound to the throat. He lost a great deal of blood and lingered near death for 10 days before succumbing to his injuries.
History was not privileged to witness what occurred in the final few days of March 1869. But it appears Macheca and Agnello entered into negotiations. Macheca might have announced his intention to withdraw from the Sicilian conflict or even to back the Palermitani in the struggle. There is reason to believe that the two men scheduled a meeting together. Whatever transpired was dramatic enough for Agnello to emerge from his home on Thursday morning, April 1st, and resume his traditional proud stroll through the Sicilian neighborhoods - his 19th Century approximation of a victory lap.
Frank Sacarro, Raffaele Agnello's godson and chief among his bodyguards, stepped first out onto the Royal Street walk. After a moment, Agnello burst triumphantly from his home and strode past Sacarro, turning riverward on Ursulines Street and strutting into the rising sun.
Agnello was wearing his best suit. A finely tailored navy jacket covered a blue and gray striped waistcoat and a crisp white shirt. A diamond and silver pin sparkled in his cravat. His light gray trousers were a precise match for his brand new bowler hat. In his left hand, he held the silver handle of a slender, wooden, walking stick.
Beneath a wide, graying, handlebar mustache was a broad smile minus just two or three teeth. Agnello had put on some surplus weight over the years, but he walked effortlessly that morning, as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
Agnello turned right on Old Levee Street, recently christened Decatur by the Reconstruction government, and walked by the busy French Market. He exchanged nods with men from his organization along Old Levee. Sicilian peddlers and market patrons ran from the commercial establishment to their "uncle" to praise his leadership and to swear their undying loyalty. Some performed a ceremonial kiss of his gold signet ring.
The adoring Sicilian crowd dissipated as Agnello advanced uptown through Jackson Square, passing St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo buildings on his right. At about eight-thirty, Agnello turned right onto Toulouse Street and walked in front of the building housing Grand's grocery store and the Norman & Reiss bakery. A few steps from the entrance to the J. Macheca & Company fruit store, something distracted the Mafia chief and his godson.
A noise or a passerby caught their attention. Both men looked backward toward Old Levee. In that distracted moment, Sacarro's eyes were turned away from Agnello for just a second. When he spun back, he found a bareheaded, medium-sized man in a long frock coat with an arm extended toward his godfather's head. Sacarro lunged forward, reached toward the stranger with his left hand and drew a four-shot Sharp's revolver with his right.
After just a few seconds of confusion, Raffaele Agnello's well-dressed body lay dead on the walkway. On the ground near him were a brass-mounted blunderbuss pistol and a trail of wet, red dots. A handful of lead shot launched by a single blunderbuss blast had punched holes in the windows and front walls of the Macheca store and the Norman & Reiss bakery. Four small bits of the metal had penetrated Agnello's skull. Two wounds could be seen in his right temple. Another was visible a little lower, just in front of his right ear. A final puncture oozed blood from below the ear. More blood flowed from the mouth.
Sacarro, out of breath from the unsuccessful pursuit of his godfather's assassin, emerged from the bakery with an empty pistol. He knelt down beside Agnello's body and wept.
When police arrived, they found Sacarro bleeding from a wound to his left hand. His right hand still clenched his pistol. A short sword, partly drawn from its hiding place within Agnello's cane, was on the walkway and spattered with its owner's blood. Baker Frank Philips, wounded in the right calf by a stray bullet, was found in a small, buzzing crowd within the Norman & Reiss shop.
Police brought Sacarro to headquarters for questioning while Agnello's body was taken to Dr. Henry Bayon for a post-mortem examination. Sacarro said his godfather's attacker looked to be about 20 years old and bearded. He could not recall the man's clothing, but explained that the attacker fled through the bakery. Sacarro said he followed the man, who turned and fired two shots from a revolver. Sacarro admitted to firing four times. He felt sure one of his shots struck the man in the chest. The man managed to escape out the back exit of the building.
Two and a half months later, police apprehended a young Sicilian man at a saloon near the Poydras Market and charged him with committing the murder of Raffaele Agnello. The prisoner gave his name as Joseph Florada. (Newspaper spellings of the surname range from "Fleuet" to "Florda." The confusion might have been the result of a deliberate effort on the prisoner's part. The same man appeared to use "Ignacio Renatzo" and "Gaetano Arditto" as additional aliases.) Frank Sacarro immediately demanded to see the alleged assassin. True to his Sicilian tradition, Sacarro stated that Florada was not the man who killed his godfather. The police reluctantly released the prisoner, and Agnello's murder remained unsolved.
Already dominant in the Sicilian business community, Macheca was in a favorable position also to assume control of the Sicilian criminal brotherhood following the elimination of Agnello. Macheca worked with Salvatore Matranga to establish his Stuppagghieri organization as the paramount underworld authority in the French Quarter. The group copied the structure of Agnello's efficient Mafia. The Stuppagghieri force was divided into small, manageable groups of at least 10 members or soldati, each with a leader or capodecina at its head. Activity of the minor leaders was coordinated by a trio of group leaders who answered to and advised the force's overall commander. The top tier of Stuppagghieri leadership was well insulated by the capodecina bureaucracy from the soldati who did the organization's business on the streets and, owing to its hierarchical structure, could be self-perpetuating in the event a single leader was somehow eliminated.
There were a number of rules of conduct for members of the organization. These included absolute obedience to the organization's commanders and non-cooperation with governmental authorities. There was only a single punishment for any violation of the codes; that was death.
While Macheca helped to bankroll the organization and to oversee a number of its moneymaking ventures, he embraced Salvatore Matranga as its official leader. Matranga likely viewed his New Orleans gang as an extension of the Stuppagghieri based in Monreale, Sicily, though it counted Messinesi, Trapanesi and eventually Palermitani among its membership. An old friend of Matranga's, Salvatore Marino, was simultaneously rising to lead the Stuppagghieri in Sicily. That the two men cooperated to a degree across the Atlantic appears certain.
Much of New Orleans' Sicilian colony probably viewed the Matranga organization as a welcome alternative to the Agnello Mafia, and the Stuppagghieri quickly initiated new members. The group permitted no man to join of his own choosing. Membership was by invitation only, and refusal of the invitation was a breach of etiquette that exposed one to the severest penalty. All new members were welcomed through an intimidating ceremony steeped in mysticism.
Discouraged by the loss of their leader and faced with a highly organized, well funded and rapidly growing opponent, a number of Agnello's loyal followers fled New Orleans. Some others joined with the Stuppagghieri. A few stubbornly resisted the new order in the underworld. The Matranga group showed no mercy toward its rivals and incorporated the murder of Stuppagghieri enemies into the requirements for membership in the group.
Joseph "Peppino" Agnello sparked a brief resurgence of the Palermitani, which allowed him to witness the destruction of two of his brother's enemies. He and Salvador Rosa cornered Joseph Banano and Pedro Allucho near the French Market on the morning of July 22nd, 1869, and did them up.
However, the tide was against the old-line Palermitani. Agnello ally Rosa was jailed briefly at Orleans Parish Prison following the Banano and Allucho murders and then died of a mysterious illness. Some suspected that Rosa had been poisoned. Another key Agnello associate, Salvador Honorata, was shot dead near the French Market a year later.
Agnello managed to escape injury in an assassination attempt at Lafayette Square in spring of 1869. His luck got progressively worse after that. The following May, he suffered a deep stab wound to the chest during a confused scuffle in downtown Faubourg Marigny where Louisa Street meets the river. He recovered from that injury in time to have a rifle slug rip through his chest and left arm on Dryades Street on September 13th, 1871. Doctors believed the wounds to be mortal, and Agnello's loved ones prayed around his bedside for days as he coughed up blood. But it was not yet Agnello's time. The gang leader regained his health once again.
In April 1872, Joseph Agnello appeared ready for a cease fire. He met with a Messinian gunman, Joseph Maressa (also known as Vincent Orsica), behind the French Market on April 19th. The meeting went badly and the men separated angrily. At dawn the next day, witnesses spotted Agnello and Maressa wrestling on the Picayune Tier. (Many Sicilian luggers and other vessels docked at the pier, which was located at the center of the French Quarter riverfront.)
Agnello broke free of Maressa and lunged toward the moored schooner Mischief. Three men rushed to Maressa's side, drew shotguns and fired at the fleeing gang leader. Upon reaching the Mischief, Agnello drew a long-barreled pistol and returned fire. A customs inspector named Joseph Simon Soudé, fifty one years old and just married the previous summer, got caught in the crossfire and suffered a mortal wound. A boy, Edward Nixon was also struck by the flying lead. His injury was superficial.
Maressa, wielding a powerful horse-pistol, ran to the Mischief and fired at the center of Agnello's chest. A large slug passed through the target's heart and tore a gaping hole in his back. Agnello dropped momentarily to the schooner's deck but then arose and took two steps toward his attackers. But even Joseph Agnello's amazing constitution was no match for this final injury. He collapsed dead onto the Mischief as police arrived and placed four Sicilian gunmen under arrest. Joseph Florada, the suspected assassin of Raffaele Agnello, was among the accused.
After Peppino Agnello was proved mortal, the rest of his faction scattered. Sacarro and his young family fled to Texas, settling in the Dallas area. Alphonse Mateo, his wife and his daughter disappeared from New Orleans.
Little Sicily's merchants generally sought security arrangements from the new Stuppagghieri. The lives of those who did not seek such arrangements became less rewarding and more perilous with the passage of time. Important business contracts were canceled suddenly and without explanation. Homes and businesses were repeatedly ransacked. Family members were threatened or kidnapped.
The most obstinate merchants saw their places of business suddenly and inexplicably burst into flames. After such a warning, only a few continued to resist the might of the Stuppagghieri. When some of their mutilated remains turned up in New Orleans canals and drainage ditches, the rest fell in line.
Read more about the early Mafia of New Orleans in
Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia
by Thomas Hunt and Martha Macheca Sheldon.
Information on Raffaele Agnello and the Sicilian underworld feud of 1868-1872 was obtained through the New Orleans newspapers of the day, several court documents, other government documents and through the assistance of historian Doug Casey of Metairie, Louisiana.
- First District Court Case #2163 of 1870.
- Depositions of Crispino Provenzano, Anthony Anello and Paul Solomoni, April 30, 1872.
- Manifest of the Sicilian barque Glasgow, arrived New Orleans in January 1860.
- United States Census of 1860, household of Joseph Pagnello, 5th Ward, New Orleans.
- - Roster of the Italian Guards Battalion, 3d Company, 6th Regiment, European Brigade of the Louisiana Militia.
- Newspapers and coverage dates listed below:
New Orleans Bee
- 1869: Apr 2, Jul 23, Jul 24
- 1870: May 31
New Orleans Commercial Bulletin
- 1869: Jul 23, Jul 24
- 1870: Mar 11, Mar 12, Mar 16, Jun 11, Jun 28, Dec 14
- 1871: Aug 20, Sep 26
New Orleans Crescent
- 1867: Jul 16, Nov 14
- 1869: Apr 2, Mar 24
New Orleans Picayune
- 1867: Jul 21, Nov 29
- 1869: Mar 24, Apr 7, May 14, Jun 15, Jul 23, Jul 24, Sep 7, Sep 9, Sep 11, Oct 16
- 1870: Jun 1, Dec 3, Dec 30
- 1871: Sep 21, Dec 27
- 1872: Apr 21
- 1874: Dec 24
New Orleans Republican
- 1869: Apr 9, May 7, May 14, Aug 16, Aug 22
- 1870: Mar 11, Mar 16, Mar 20, May 28, Jun 16
- 1871: Sep 13
- 1872: Apr 20, Apr 21, Apr 23
New Orleans Times
- 1868: Jun 19, Oct 28
- 1869: Jan 26, Mar 9, Mar 19, Mar 24, Mar 26, Apr 2, Apr 3 (inquest), Apr 7, May 14, Jul 23, Jul 24, Aug 17, Aug 20, Aug 24
- 1870: Oct 28, May 31, Jul 3, Jul 8, Oct 28, Oct 29
- 1871: Sep 13, Dec 27
- 1872: Mar 31, Apr 21
- 1874: Dec 16