Mafia: The Morello Family

by Jon Black

The Morello family is considered to be the first Mafia family of New York, with its leader often tagged the ‘boss of bosses’. The family was eventually broken after it’s leadership was jailed following an investigation by the Secret Service.

Arrival to America

In 1892 Giuseppe Morello arrived in New York from Corleone. He was followed six months later by his mother, step-father, four sisters and his step brothers; Nicola, Ciro and Vincent Terranova.

The family stayed in New York for around a year, but suffering from the lack of available work they travelled to Louisiana to stay with a cousin. For a year Morello worked with his father planting sugar cane before moving on to Bryan, Texas to work as a cotton picker. In 1896, the family arrived back in New York after being hit with Malaria.

In New York, Morello worked with his father as an ornamental plasterer, with his younger step-brothers, Ciro and Vincent, helping during the evenings and weekends. He then opened a coal basement, but sold that after a year, and around 1900 he opened a saloon on 13th Street, soon followed by a second saloon on Stanton Street. Due to bad business, Morello closed the Stanton Street saloon and sold the one on 13th Street in 1901. He then opened a date factory employing around fifteen people, but the business also ran at a loss.

Ignazio Lupo, who would later become a powerful member of the gang and also marry into the family, arrived in New York in 1898. Lupo was fleeing arrest in Palermo after killing a business rival in the wholesale grocery business. He opened a store on E72nd Street with a cousin named Saietta, but moved his business to Brooklyn after a disagreement.


The gangs early focus was on counterfeiting US currency. A dangerous occupation that would result in them becoming the focus of the New York Secret Service branch, with agents specially trained to detect bogus bills and covertly track street pushers with the hope of capturing the counterfeit manufacturers.

The first major arrests happened on June 11th, 1900, when Giuseppe Morello was captured along with Colagero Meggiore. They were accused of selling counterfeit money and held on $5000 bail. The arrests had grown out of a Secret Service investigation that began when counterfeit $5 bills were being passed in Brooklyn and North Beach. Morello and Meggiore were believed to be the suppliers of the money, which was described as ‘being printed on very poor paper with crude workmanship’. Morello later walked free from court when no evidence could be brought against him.

After an anonymous letter was sent to Detective Petrosino of the NYPD, the Secret Service raided a powerful band of counterfeiters on May 22st, 1902. The tip off claimed that a gang had been manufacturing coins at a cottage in Hackensack, New Jersey, rented by Salvatore Clemente, an acquaintance of Nicholas Terranova. Agents also raided a barbershop at 969 First Avenue, that was being used to distribute the currency, arresting Vito Cascioferro and Giuseppe Romano. Cascioferro, one of the most powerful Mafia leaders of the time, managed to escape conviction with an alibi that he worked at a local paper mill.

The alliances that Morello formed in these counterfeiting schemes show a mixed bunch. The 1900 arrests list a mixture of Italians and Irish criminals, and the gang in 1902 had been led by a woman. Working with already established gangs in New York was a necessity likely born from the the technical, mechanical, and network requirements of the counterfeiting business.

Giuseppe Catania, a Brooklyn grocer, was found murdered on July 23rd, 1902. The Secret Service believed that Catania had been a member of the Morello gang involved with counterfeiting. They suspected the gang had disposed of him due to his habit of drinking and talking too much. Salvatore Clemente, a Secret Service informant, later revealed that Giuseppe Morello and Dominico Pecoraro were behind the slaying.

In 1901, Chief Wilkie, of the Secret Service, noted the appearance of counterfeit five dollar bills in imitation to currency issued by the National Iron Bank Morristown NJ. Well over a year later, on 31st December, 1902, Secret Service agents arrested Giueseppe Guillambardo, Giuseppe De Primo and Isadoro Crocervera as they walked along Main Street, all three men were suspected ‘pushers’ for the Morello gang. The notes, knows as ‘Morristown Fives’, had been manufactured in Italy and then shipped in empty olive oil containers to Manhattan. A man named Giuseppe Boscarino, who would feature in the gangs downfall in 1910, was suspected of being in charge of controlling the distribution of the Morristown notes.

Benedetto Madonnia, brother-in-law to the recently jailed De Primo, was murdered in April 1903. The sensationalist case hit the headlines and became known as “The Barrel Murder” after Madonnia’s body was found cut and stuffed into an old barrel in East 11th Street. Most of the known members of the Morello gang were arrested in connection with the killing, but eventually cleared due to lack of evidence.

The gangs efforts at counterfeiting ceased after the ‘Barrel’ case closed, and did not start up again until 1908 when they began a scheme printing hundreds of thousands of fake dollars.

Real Estate & Wholesale

Giuseppe Morello started a real estate company in 1902, ‘The Ignatz Florio Co-Operative Association Among Corleonesi’, the company was involved in the construction and selling of properties in New York. The names listed on the incorporation as directors were Morello, Antonio Milone – a man who would later be involved with their counterfeiting schemes and Marco Macaluso.

Shares in the association were sold amongst the local Italian community, and early business records for the company show property sales and purchases worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The business flourished and the share capital was increased in from $1,200 to $200,000. Hindered by the economic downturn in 1907, the company eventually collapsed and was later investigated by the Bankers Association of America.

Ignazio Lupo built an impressive chain of wholesale grocery stores during his time in New York. Expanding from his store on Prince Street, he opened a new store Spring Street, and another at 628 138th Street in a property which he had purchased from the Ignatz Florio Co-Operative. His largest store was at 210-214 Mott Street. It was reported to be ‘one the most impressive stores in the neighbourhood, many of the locals could only dream of shopping there’.

William Flynn, chief of the Secret Service in 1914, described how Lupo used his network of businesses:

The small Italian grocers of the district were forced to buy their supplies from this store. If they did not their establishments were in danger of being wrecked by bombs or burned. Even worse, their children might be kidnapped or themselves slain. By intimidating the local grocers into trading at their wholesale store, Lupo and Morello accomplished a double purpose. They swelled their so-called legitimate profits and were able to get rid of some of the counterfeit money.

In 1912, the Secret Service recorded that the ‘Terranova boys were still extorting money from poor shopkeepers and others’. One shopkeeper was reported to have handed over $300 but failed to report the crime out of fear.

At around the same time as the construction troubles of the gang, Lupo began a huge fraud scheme using his wholesale network. In November 1908, he claimed bankruptcy against his import business and fled the city, his Mott Street store was closed under order of the US Court. The receivers moved in, and the inventory for his store only reached $1,500, but his debts were up to $100,000. The attorneys for the receivers discovered that Lupo had made around $50,000 worth of purchases in the week leading up to his disappearance, and also that Lupo had also recently remortgaged his real estate in Harlem. He had purchased the properties a year earlier from the failing Ignatz Florio Co-Operative, costing $71,000.

Other Italian grocers across New York began to file for bankruptcy at the same time as Lupo. Antonino Passananti, a member of the Morello gang, who owned a wholesale wine business in Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, ran his business into the ground in December 1908. The receivers called in the police after discovering Passananti had been committing wilful fraud. They also noted he had been paying large amounts of money to Lupo before the pair went into hiding. The New York Times reported that a dozen other Italian dealers had also disappeared, resulting in total liabilities close to $500,000.

During a later trial involving Lupo, one of the witnesses recalled (somewhat inaccurately) a conversation between Morello gang members:

“There was some talk of the failure of Lupo in his bank on Elizabeth Street, and how Salvatore [Giuseppe Palermo] and Uncle Vincent had also failed on Elizabeth Street, making much money thereby.”

On December 16th, Salvatore Manzella, an importer of wine and Italian produce at 196 Elizabeth St, filed for bankruptcy. William Blau, the receiver, presented Manzella to Judge Holt when he refused to show his accounts. Manzella testified that for over three years he had been a victim of extortion from Lupo, and as a result he had lost his business.

In November 1909, Lupo returned to New York. He walked into the office of his receivers with his counsel, Charles Barbier. The excuse he invented for fleeing the city, and his bankrupt business, was that he had been blackmailed for $10,000 by the Black Hand which left him broke and caused him to flee to Baltimore and Buffalo.

Black Hand Activities

The New York press often labelled Morello and Lupo “Leaders of the Black Hand”, when actually the gangs main criminal activity was counterfeiting, but there are some connections that can be made.

Antonio Comito, a witness who testified against Morello and Lupo, recalled a story told to him by Nick Sylvester. Although Sylvester was a low ranking member of the gang, generally working menial tasks, he had blackmailed a man on Mott Street using threatening letters. This, he told, was done along with Giuseppe Morello’s brother and son.

He was a fool and told the police. We did not know that though and when he failed for a third time to give up the money we went there late one night and threw a big bomb through the window of his store … We were arrested but it had been dark and we had arranged things so carefully, even having the letters written by others and never having him see or know us, that there being no eye witnesses a good lawyer who helps us much in New York got us free.

The gang was also involved with kidnapping, another popular Black Hand crime. Gang members, Vito Laduca and Ignazio Lupo were both arrested in separate kidnapping cases. Lupo was arrested on March 7th 1906 after he was identified by Antonio Bozzuffi, an Italian boy who had been kidnapped and held on 59th Street. Bozzuffi was the son of a wealthy Italian banker named John, who had helped the Morello gang in the past by filing the incorporation certificate of their Ignatz Florio Co-Operative Association.

Antonio Passananti, a Morello gang member who was involved with the killing of Petrosino, was arrested under suspicion of setting a bomb in Brooklyn, after he had tried to extort money from man who failed to pay. He was caught in possession of a unique type of paper and envelopes that matched those sent to the victim.

In 1909, when Morello was arrested in connection with counterfeiting, a series of Black Hand letters were found at his home.

Agent Flynn of the Secret Service described the way in which the Mafia leader used the letters, adding a slight twist to the more simplistic methods of lesser criminals:

A threatening letter is sent to a proposed victim. Immediately after the letter is delivered by the postman Morello just “happens” to be in the vicinity of the victim to be, and “accidentally” meets the receiver of the letter. The receiver knows of Morello’s close connections with Italian malefactors, and, the thing being fresh in mind, calls Morello’s attention to the letter. Morello takes the letter and reads it. He informs the receiver that victims are not killed off without ceremony and just for the sake of murder. The “Black-Hand” chief himself declares he will locate the man who sent the letter, if such a thing is possible, the victim never suspecting that the letter is Morello’s own. Of course, the letter is never returned to the proposed victim. By this cunning procedure no evidence remains in the hand of the receiver of the letter should he wish to seek aid from the police.

View the contents of the Black Hand letters found in Giuseppe Morello’s home

“MR. BATAGLIA: “Do not think that we are dead. Look out for your face; a veil won’t help you. Now is the occasion to give me five hundred dollars on account of that which you others don’t know respect that from then to now you should have kissed my forehead I have been in your store, friend Donate how you respect him he is an ignorant boob, that I bring you others I hope that all will end that when we are alone they give me no peace as I deserve time lost that brings you will know us neither some other of the Mafia in the future will write in the bank where you must send the money without so many stories otherwise you will pay for it.”

DEAR FRIEND : Beware we are sick and tired of writing to you to the appointment you have not come with people of honor. If this time you don’t do what we say it will be your ruination. Send us three hundred dollars with people of honor at eleven o’clock Thursday night. There will be a friend at the corner of 15th Street and Hamilton Ave. He will ask you for the signal. Give me the word and you will give him the money. Beware that if you don’t come to this order we will ruin all your merchandise and attempt your life. Beware of what you do. M. N.

FRIEND: The need obliges us to come to you in order to do us a favor. We request, Sunday night, 7th day, at 12 o’clock you must bring the sum of $1000. Under penalty of death for you and your dears you must come under the new bridge near the Grand Street ferry where you will find the person that wants to know the time. At this word you will give him the money. Beware of what you do and keep your mouth shut…

Structure & Power

While Giuseppe Morello was the head of the gang, the press would often incorrectly name them “The Lupo Gang” or the “Lupo-Morello Band”. Ignazio Lupo, due to his exposed grocery network, and the fact he had been labelled with the intimidating pseudonym ‘Lupo the Wolf”, would often receive more column space when the gang appeared in the tabloids.

Antonio Comito, who appeared as a witness in 1910, spoke about Morello’s leadership:

The leader – a one armed man named Morello … One alone never carried out the orders of the ‘superiors’. To do so took to great an amount of courage. Such work was always done by three or four, directed by a ‘corporal’, who was put in charge of the ‘work’ at hand by the head – called the ‘President’. He, from a distance directed the execution of the four members’ work. Always from a distance so that should their work be discovered by the police it would be easy for him to make an immediate report. The ‘head’ would inform all the other members and they would hold counsel and deliberate what to do.

Under false names members of the organisation have even appeared as witnesses for the prosecution only to go upon the stand, refute all their previous statements and deny their ability to attach the defendant in any way with the case in hand.

Comito also recalled a conversation between himself and Antonio Cecala from the gang:

I want you to know all my friends my friends for they are all members of the organisation. That one [Morello] is the leader. I want to know with whom you are dealing. He is president of the Corleone Society [Ignatz Florio Co-Operative] and has in his power, four buildings, amounting in value to over one hundred thousand dollars.

Morello knows how much money he has given to detectives, when and where it was given and the names of those who have taken it. He has always gotten out of everything in which he was implicated … When the order is given to arrest Morello, policemen whom he had fed always will warn him and he will hide.

There are twenty of us who have organised this affair. Others higher up in famous places know of it. They will receive their share. Should anything slip and we get into trouble there will be thousands of dollars for lawyers and we will be freed … We are big, bigger than you know. You will know perhaps, later on, about the many branches of our society, and how it is possible for us to do things in one part of the country or world and have the other half of the affair carried out so far away that no suspicion can possibly come to us. After you have obeyed and seen some inkling of our power, you will be glad to become one of us.

As well as enjoying the protection of corrupt NYPD officers, the gang is supposed to have held some political influence. In 1903, after the collapse of the ‘Barrel Trial‘ against the gang, Secret Service records noted a con­ver­sa­tion between Pietro Inzerillo and one of their under­cover agents. During the con­ver­sa­tion Inzerillo claimed that his release from the trial was due to the actions of Congressman Timothy Sullivan.

In June 1912, whilst Morello and Lupo were trying to secure their release from prison, William Flynn of the Secret Service was interviewed in the NYT about the gangs political power:

Mr. Flynn was asked if the band had any political influence. His answer was: “The strongest I know of. It is almost Impossible to combat it. It comes from both political parties.” He then was questioned as to whether this influence would be strong enough to swing a Congressional Investigation of the Secret Service in the hope of crippling it. “It is possible,” said Mr. Flynn.

Flynn was also quoted in the Washington Post in 1912. Speaking about the gang he said:

These bands are protected by money and by political influence. I do not blame either political party exclusively. Both protect these bands for one reason or another. Of course, besides being able to collect thousands of dollars from Italians and Sicilians, they are able to sway hundreds of votes by terrorising citizens. The police are to a certain extent powerless because of the powerful backing these men get from politicians.

Loss of Leadership

The Morello gang was heavily involved with counterfeiting since it’s beginnings. The Secret Service had been building a case against them in relation to the counterfeit “Morristown Fives” for some time before the 1903 killing of Madonnia occurred. However, as Chief Wilkie of the Secret Service explained in his Annual Report of 1903, the governments case was dropped so that the gang could be tried for the more serious crime of the Barrel Murder:

Permission was granted to the New York agent of this service to give the police the benefit of our investigation, and with the material furnished and the co-operation of our agents, who pointed out and identified the various members of the gang, the local authorities were able to clear up the mystery and secure the indictment of most of the prisoners … at any rate, the traffic in Morristowns National bank notes has been temporarily interrupted.

Inspector McClusky was quoted on April 16th 1903:

Credit for the quick solution of this mystery must be given to the splendid system of surveillance kept up by the Secret Service operatives. After the murder of Joseph Catania, in Brooklyn, last summer Chief Inspector Flynn, of the Eastern Section of the Secret Service, learned that Catania had been a member of the Mafia and was associated with a gang of counterfeiters whom the Bureau had long had under surveillance.

However, the ‘Barrel’ case collapsed and no charges were made. The Secret Service lost their initiative against the gang, who now knew that they were being followed on a regular basis. After the trial in 1903, the gang moved away from counterfeiting and concentrated more with Morello’s construction business and Lupo’s wholesale grocery network.

In 1908, after the failure of ‘The Ignatz Florio Co-Operative’ and Lupo’s bankruptcy, they returned to their old counterfeiting trade. They set up a base in Highland NY, with a plan to print hundreds of thousands of fake dollars. This time the Secret Service managed to secure convictions against many of gang members, and after a sensational court case, Giuseppe Morello and Lupo were both sent to Atlanta Penitentiary for 25 and 30 years respectively.


With Morello and Lupo behind bars, and their case for appeal rejected, leadership of the Morello gang needed to be resolved. The Terranova brothers, Ciro, Vincent and Nicholas were aged 23, 25 and 21, respectively, at the time of the 1911 appeal hearing. Other possible candidates were the Lomonte brothers, Fortunato and Tomasso, cousins of Giuseppe Morello. They held a hay and feed business at 2103 1st Avenue, on the junction of E108th Street and also had connections with Giosue Gallucci.

The following years saw the Morello gang try to secure the release of their leaders. In 1912 the Secret Service learnt of conversations between Nick Terranova and Giuseppe DeMarco to kidnap Captain Flynn’s children, a plan that Nick turned down as he didn’t want to jeopardise his brothers chance of parole. The Terranova brothers also started a semi-political club called ‘The White Doves’ with a view to getting stronger in politics.

Colagero Morello, the only son of Giuseppe, was killed in a Street fight in 1912 on E114th Street. He was shot by Rocco Tapano, a member of the Kid Baker gang, in retribution for the Morello gang’s involvement in the 1903 slaying of Benedetto Madonnia, Tapano’s Uncle. Nick Morello took revenge for his nephew when he shot Rocco Tapano in the back in the Bronx a few weeks later.

Fortunato Lomonte was killed on May 23rd 1914. He had just left his business premises on the Saturday morning and was walking along E108th Street when he was shot in the back with three bullets. The killer had appeared from the hallway of a tenement, then escaped by returning to the hallway and vaulting a fence at the rear of the building. Lomonte’s friends drove him to Harlem Hospital where he was revived. Detective John Cassetti pushed Lomonte for the killers name, but Lomonte refused to name his killer before he fell unconscious and died.

According to Nicola Gentile, the killers were Umberto Valenti and Accursio Dimino, sent by ‘Toto’ D’Aquila who was looking to remove the power of Lomonte who he described as having “the absolute predominance in the quarter around 106th Street”, but may have also been for the recent killing of D’Aquila’s friend Giuseppe Fontana, a long time Morello associate who had defected from the gang.

On June 24th 1916 a meeting took place at Coney Island between the Morello gang, the Neapolitan Navy Street gang and the Neapolitan Coney Island gang. The idea of the meeting was to discuss the expansion of gambling dens in lower Manhattan.

Even though the Morello’s and the Navy Street gang worked together for sometime, including jointly removing Giosue Gallucci from Harlem, the Neopolitans believed they could taken over the Harlem rackets if they could eliminate the Morellos. They hatched a plan where they would try and lure the entire leadership down to Brooklyn and ambush them.

On September 7th 1916, Nicholas Terranova and Charles Ubriaco travelled downtown to meet with the Navy Street gang, they were both ambushed and killed. The Morello gang and the Brooklyn Camorra were at all out war. The Camorra hatched various plans to wipe out the rest of the Morello leadership, but they were either foiled or were never completed, however four associates of the Morello gang were murdered by the Camorra in Philadelphia.

The Morello gang was decimated. The Camorra was taking over their gambling and business rackets in Harlem, and at the same time another Sicilian gang based in Harlem, headed by a Salvatore ‘Toto’ D’Aquila, grew in power.

The writ­ings of Nicola Gentile, describe D’Aquila as more feared than respected, exceed­ingly fero­cious, crafty and ambi­tious. Gentile went on to note that since Morello’s 25 year sen­tence ’ his posi­tion had been entrusted by The General Assembly to Toto D’Aquila’. Amongst the Italian gangs of New York, D’Aquila was now con­sid­ered the boss.