Early Organized Crime

Amer­i­can coun­ter­feit­ing in the late 1890s was dom­i­nat­ed by dan­ger­ous Italian-born out­laws that had found a foothold in the US.

Thousands of faces look from the swinging frames in the gallery of the Washington headquarters of the Secret Service. There are stories for these faces that stir the blood and compel one’s admiration for the genius that carries to temporary success some brilliant campaign of wrong-doing.” — John Wilkie, chief of the US Secret Service. (1905)

From Italy to the US

In the sec­ond half of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, Ital­ian law includ­ed a pro­vi­sion called domi­cilio coat­to (forced domi­cile), a pre­ven­tive polic­ing mea­sure that reset­tled sus­pect­ed crim­i­nals on small islands near the main­land coast with­out the need of a trial or con­vic­tion. Anoth­er mea­sure was sorveg­lian­za spe­ciale (spe­cial sur­veil­lance), an excep­tion­al­ly strict sur­veil­lance peri­od enforced on sus­pects and recent­ly released pris­on­ers. In 1908, New York Police Com­mis­sion­er Bing­ham remarked, “The law­break­er’s life out­side of prison in Italy is, in fact, passed in con­tin­u­al fear of the police and the cara­binieri … it is not at all sur­pris­ing that he should take advan­tage of the first oppor­tu­ni­ty to get to the Unit­ed States, where he is unknown to the author­i­ties and con­di­tions are per­fect for him to live upon the more help­less of his hon­est fel­low coun­try­men.1

An arti­cle from 1909, high­light­ed the favor­able envi­ron­ment that crim­i­nals found in the US: “Con­di­tions in the Unit­ed States could not have been bet­ter con­trived for the Ital­ian ex-convict dri­ven from his native land by the rig­or­ous puni­tive super­vi­sion of the police. Not only is he unknown to the author­i­ties of law and order, but wher­ev­er he may go he finds him­self among the south­ern Ital­ians who are already famil­iar with the oper­a­tion of the Mafia and the Camor­ra…2

The atten­tion of the press was drawn to the Mafia fol­low­ing the mur­der of Anto­nio Flac­comio in New York in 1888, the first offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized Mafia killing in the city.3 Front-page sto­ries described the Mafia as “an orga­ni­za­tion which is so strange to this coun­try as to deserve expla­na­tion from the press and sur­veil­lance by the police” and claimed it was an “acknowl­edged for­mi­da­ble enemy to the admin­is­tra­tion of jus­tice in New York.4

The nation­al atten­tion of Amer­i­ca was again drawn to the Mafia after New Orleans Chief of Police David Hen­nessy was mur­dered while mak­ing his way home on Octo­ber 15, 1890. The news­pa­pers were flood­ed with sto­ries about Hen­nessey being the first Amer­i­can vic­tim of the Mafia. New Orleans, with its boom­ing fish and fruit import­ing trade, had become a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for Ital­ian immi­grants. The mur­der was thought to be con­nect­ed to a long-waged bat­tle between two fac­tions of Ital­ian steve­dores, the Matran­gas and the Proven­zanos.5

Location chief Hennessy was shot (1890)
Location chief Hennessy was shot (1890)

Pro­test­ers, out­raged at the jury’s fail­ure to con­vict the sus­pects, marched on the New Orleans prison and killed eleven inmates, lead­ing to a break­down in diplo­mat­ic rela­tions between Italy and the US. A report com­mis­sioned by the city’s mayor into the exis­tence of secret soci­eties in New Orleans stat­ed that Hen­nessy had “a deep­er knowl­edge of the Mafia and its meth­ods than any other detec­tive,” and that “Every man who had ever held a high posi­tion in police cir­cles and every com­mit­ting mag­is­trate who has ever sat upon the bench in this city are con­vinced of its exis­tence.6

Two notable Mafiosi known to have fled Italy, who would later lead their own crime fam­i­lies in the US, were Ignazio Lupo and Giuseppe Morel­lo. Lupo, born March 1877, fled Sici­ly after he killed a busi­ness rival in his Paler­mo store. Arriv­ing in New York in 1898, he went into busi­ness with fam­i­ly mem­bers and later start­ed his own whole­sale gro­cery busi­ness.7 Morel­lo, born in May 1867 at Cor­leone, trav­eled to Amer­i­ca around the time he was accused of the killing of Anna di Prima in 1894 (she was a wit­ness against him in a homi­cide case). He was charged with “belong­ing to a crim­i­nal asso­ci­a­tion for rob­bery and homi­cide,” although there was insuf­fi­cient evi­dence to pros­e­cute him.8

Lupo and Morel­lo both fea­ture heav­i­ly in the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can coun­ter­feit­ing, which was dom­i­nat­ed by Italian-born out­laws begin­ning in the late 1880s.9

Gaetano Russo

The chief of the Secret Ser­vice stat­ed in 1885, “There exists a secret gang of Sicil­ian coun­ter­feit­ers in this coun­try with mem­bers in all the large cities … The gang are sworn to reveal noth­ing of their call­ing under an awful pun­ish­ment.” Agent Andrew L. Drum­mond, head of the New York Divi­sion, respond­ed, “It has long been known to me that the Ital­ian coun­ter­feit­ers in the coun­try from Paler­mo and all parts of Sici­ly are band­ed togeth­er and that to betray one of their mem­bers is death at the hands of some cho­sen mem­ber. This order is called the ‘Maffa.’10

One notable coun­ter­feit­er men­tioned in Drummond’s reply was Gae­tano Russo, who arrived in New Orleans in 1862 and went on to have a chaot­ic and vio­lent career. Russo was charged with mur­der of a fel­low coun­ter­feit­er in Chica­go but was acquit­ted after the “Ital­ians swore him free. He relo­cat­ed to New York after the trial where he was acknowl­edged as “a leader among the Ital­ians mak­ing coun­ter­feit coins.11

In 1885, rumors began to spread in New York that Russo was an infor­mant. It became known that he’d pre­vi­ous­ly received a life sen­tence in Louisiana for arson but was par­doned after serv­ing just one year. Fear­ful coun­ter­feit­ers began to shy away from their work and quick­ly saw their prof­its begin to fall. One of Agent Drummond’s spies report­ed that “the Soci­ety of Ital­ians are pret­ty well broke in New York city” and that it had been pro­posed that Russo should leave the city or be killed.12

Gaetano Russo & Candelaro Bettini (1888)
Gaetano Russo & Candelaro Bettini (1888)

Russo trav­eled to Europe with his wife and worked with an engraver to pro­duce $30,000 in new coun­ter­feit US bills. He was cap­tured fol­low­ing his return to New York in August 1888, with his gang being described as the first of any con­se­quence since the 1878 cap­ture of infa­mous coun­ter­feit­er William Brock­way. As head of the out­fit, Russo was sen­tenced to twelve years in Erie Coun­ty Pen­i­ten­tiary. Also sen­tenced was Can­de­laro Bet­ti­ni from Messi­na, an asso­ciate of those con­nect­ed with the Mafia mur­der of Anto­nio Flac­comio.13

Nicola Taranto

Bet­ti­ni was released from Erie Coun­ty Pen­i­ten­tiary in 1895. He mar­ried “Queen of the Coun­ter­feit­ers” Sal­va­to­ra Pur­pu­ra, a wealthy ten­e­ment owner from Union Street, Brook­lyn, who had strong ties to many of the crim­i­nal Paler­mi­tani (from Paler­mo, Sici­ly) in the area. Pur­pu­ra also had inter­na­tion­al con­nec­tions, includ­ing her asso­ciate Joe Raf­fone who was noted as hav­ing import­ed coun­ter­feits worth $25,000 from Paler­mo into Boston. Act­ing as the importer for the gang, she arranged con­sign­ments of notes to be smug­gled over from Italy and per­son­al­ly col­lect­ed the ship­ments from the ship’s cap­tain before bring­ing them back to Brook­lyn.14 

Bet­ti­ni, who worked as the gang’s whole­sale deal­er, struck up a part­ner­ship with Nico­la Taran­to, a “cousin” from Messi­na, who sold the notes from his store on Roo­sevelt Street in Man­hat­tan.15 

Nicola Taranto
Nicola Taranto

Six­teen of the group were arrest­ed in 1896 after dis­trib­ut­ing coun­ter­feit notes known as the “Ital­ian” $5 and $2 cer­tifi­cates across the north east­ern US.16 Bet­ti­ni crit­i­cized Taran­to for mak­ing “a great mis­take in sell­ing the money to young fel­lows; he should have sold it only to the older men who had long expe­ri­ence in the busi­ness.17 The hier­ar­chy of the gang became appar­ent dur­ing a vio­lent dis­tur­bance at Lud­low Street Jail. Nico­la Taran­to was observed order­ing his men to yield using a coun­ter­sign and pass­words and was “sec­ond­ed by Bet­ti­ni his next in com­mand.18 Taran­to was sen­tenced to five years, which his coun­sel described as a prob­a­ble life sen­tence due to his chron­ic kid­ney dis­ease. (Fol­low­ing his release in 1903, it was dis­cov­ered that he had retired from coun­ter­feit­ing alto­geth­er.)19   

Let­ters found in Taranto’s store at the time of his arrest point­ed “in a strik­ing man­ner to Taran­to as the head and chief of the Mafia as it exists in this coun­try.” Some of the let­ters came from Luzerne Coun­ty, Penn­syl­va­nia, where ten cap­tured Mafia sus­pects con­fessed to work­ing under orders received from New York and Philadel­phia.20 Their leader, James Anto­nio Pas­sarel­la, known as the “Ban­dit King,” had been sent from the “Mafia head­quar­ters in Philadel­phia” to over­see the gang and make reg­u­lar reports back to Philadel­phia and New YorkWhen the gang need­ed dyna­mite for blow­ing up a house, a bomb was man­u­fac­tured in Philadel­phia and “sent by express.21

Taran­to had used his busi­ness on Roo­sevelt Street to sell the gang’s coun­ter­feits.22 Import busi­ness­es, restau­rants, cof­fee­hous­es and bar­ber­shops pro­vid­ed use­ful dis­tri­b­u­tion points and meet­ing places for coun­ter­feit­ers. One noto­ri­ous meet­ing place was a New York saloon at 8 Prince Street. The restau­rant at the rear of the estab­lish­ment was man­aged by Giuseppe Morel­lo, pos­si­bly the first US Mafioso with the title of “capo dei capi (boss of boss­es).23 The saloon was often men­tioned in Secret Ser­vice reports. One agent assert­ed “more coun­ter­feit­ers have been arrest­ed at this address than any other place I know, it is one of the worst joints in the city.24 

Vito Cascioferro

Vito Cascioferro
Vito Cascioferro

In 1902, Anto­nio D’Andrea, the future boss of the Chica­go Mafia, was sen­tenced to thir­teen months after pass­ing coun­ter­feit coins he had pur­chased from the owner of the Prince Street saloon. They were being man­u­fac­tured by a gang led by a female coun­ter­feit­er, who was arrest­ed along with the pow­er­ful Mafia leader Vito Cas­cio­fer­ro.25

Joseph Pet­rosi­no, who had been involved in the 1896 roundup of Passarella’s gang, was a renowned police offi­cer cred­it­ed by the com­mis­sion­er of Immi­gra­tion as hav­ing bet­ter qual­i­fi­ca­tions than “any other man in the US for appre­hend­ing the law­less Sicil­ians.26 In 1902, Pet­rosi­no received an anony­mous let­ter about a coun­ter­feit coin plant in New Jer­sey. The inves­ti­ga­tion led to the arrest of Vito Cas­cio­fer­ro, “prob­a­bly the most pow­er­ful Sicil­ian cosca (clan) leader of the age.27 

Petrosino’s tip-off led to the cap­ture of a gang thought to be respon­si­ble for 75 per­cent of coun­ter­feit coins in the region. The arrests includ­ed Vito Cas­cio­fer­ro; Stel­la Frauto, an expe­ri­enced female coun­ter­feit­er; Andrea Romano, the owner of the Prince Street saloon; and Sal­va­tore Clemente, who became an invalu­able infor­mant to the Secret Ser­vice through the next thir­ty years.28

Cas­cio­fer­ro man­aged to escape con­vic­tion after some wit­ness­es failed to iden­ti­fy him and oth­ers failed to appear at all.29 The fol­low­ing year, he was tracked around the city by Secret Ser­vice agents. They observed his meet­ings with many Ital­ian coun­ter­feit­ers, pri­mar­i­ly Giuseppe Morel­lo and mem­bers of his gang. In March 1903, he was seen try­ing to arrange pas­sage back to Sici­ly before he dis­ap­peared from the city.30


1Grif­fiths, A. (19 – ). The his­to­ry and romance of crime from the ear­li­est time to the present day. Lon­don: The Groli­er Soci­ety. 273
Garfinkel, P. (2018). A Wide, Invis­i­ble Net: Admin­is­tra­tive Depor­ta­tion in Italy, 1863 – 1871. Euro­pean His­to­ry Quar­ter­ly, 48(1), 5 – 33
Bing­ham, T. (1908). For­eign Crim­i­nals in New York. The North Amer­i­can Review, 188(634), 383 – 394
2White, Frank Mar­shall. (1909) How the Unit­ed States Fos­ters the Black Hand. The Out­look. V93 New York: Out­look Co. 496
3Warn­er, San­ti­no, Van‘t Riet. Early New York Mafia An Alter­na­tive The­o­ry. The Informer. May 2014. Thomas Hunt. 15
4Akron City Times (Nov 21, 18881
5Nelli, H. S. (1976). The busi­ness of crime: Ital­ians and syn­di­cate crime in the Unit­ed States. New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. 24 – 27, 35 – 37
Wilkes Barre Times Leader. The Evening News. (Oct 20, 1890) 1 
Pitkin, Thomas M. & Cor­das­co, Francesco. (1977). The Black Hand: a chap­ter in eth­nic crime. Totowa, N.J: Lit­tle­field, Adams. 23 – 28
6Unit­ed States. Depart­ment of State. (1891). Cor­re­spon­dence in rela­tion to the killing of pris­on­ers in New Orleans on March 14, 1891. Wash­ing­ton: G.P.O.
7U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Appeals for the Sec­ond Cir­cuit, The Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca vs. Guiseppe Cal­ic­chio et al, Tran­script of Record. (1910) 462 – 467
8Gen­er­al Records of the Depart­ment of State, 1763 – 2002. Numer­i­cal Files, 19061910. M862 Roll 845. Giuseppe Morel­lo crim­i­nal record.
Flynn, W. J. (1919). The Bar­rel Mys­tery. New York: The James A. McCann Com­pa­ny. 243 – 261
U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Appeals. Guiseppe Cal­ic­chio et al, Tran­script of Record. (1910) 456
9John­son, D. R. (1995). Ille­gal ten­der: Coun­ter­feit­ing and the secret ser­vice in nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Wash­ing­ton: Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion Press. Table 1.8
10U.S. Nation­al Archives and Records Admin­is­tra­tion (here­after referred to as NARA), RG 87, Daily Reports of Agents, (here­after referred to as DRA). A.L. Drum­mond. Vol. 34 (Oct 161885
11The Buf­fa­lo Sun­day Morn­ing News. (Feb 9, 1890)
The Buf­fa­lo Com­mer­cial (Feb 18, 1890)
NARA. RG 29. Records of the Bureau of Pris­ons, 18702009, Inmate Case Files, 19021922, Gae­tano Russo, Inmate No. 4840.
12NARA, RG 87, DRA. A.L. Drum­mond. Vol. 34 (3 Nov, 1885. 21 Jan, 16 Feb 1886)
Chica­go Tri­bune (Jan 26, 1887) 5
New Orleans Repub­li­can (Mar 11, 18745
13The Buf­fa­lo Com­mer­cial (Feb 18, 1890)
Fort Scott Daily Tri­bune (Sep 4, 1888)
Buf­fa­lo Couri­er (Sep 18, 1888) 6
The Brook­lyn Daily Eagle (Jun 26, 1896)
Fort Scott Daily Mon­i­tor (Nov 21, 18883
14Lebanon Daily News (Jun 4, 1896) 1
The Stan­dard Union (Oct 22, 1892)
NARA, RG 87, DRA. G. Ray Bagg. Vol.8 (Oct 1895 – Jan 1896
15NARA, RG 87, DRA. G. Ray Bagg Vol. 8 (Jan 17, 1896)
The New York Times (Jan 18, 1896)
Har­ris­burg Tele­graph (Jan 17, 18961
16The New York Times (Jan 18, 1896)
The Sun. NY (Jan 17, 1896) 3
Unit­ed States Depart­ment of the Trea­sury. (1896) Annu­al report of the sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury on the state of the finances. Wash­ing­ton. 817 – 818
17NARA, RG 87, DRA. G. Ray Bagg. Vol.9 (Jun 13, 1896)
NARA, RG 87, DRA. William J. Flynn. Vol.5 (Dec 121901
18The New York Times (Mar 6, 189610
19NARA, RG 87, DRA. William J. Flynn. Vol.5 (May 5,61903
20The Jour­nal — “King of the Coun­ter­feit­ers” (Jan 18, 1896
The Philadel­phia Times (April 24, 1896)
The Philadel­phia Times (Feb 27, 1896) 5
Akron Daily Demo­c­rat (Jan 241896
21The Philadel­phia Inquir­er (Apr 25, 1896)
Akron Daily Demo­c­rat (Jan 24, 1896)
Buf­fa­lo Couri­er (Jan 141896
22NARA, RG 87, DRA. G. Ray Bagg Vol. 8 (Jan 161896
23Flynn, W. J. (1919). The Bar­rel Mys­tery. New York: The James A. McCann Com­pa­ny.  9
Critch­ley, David (2009) The Ori­gin of Orga­nized Crime in Amer­i­ca: The New York City Mafia, 1891 – 1931. New York: Rout­ledge. 46
24NARA, RG 87, DRA.  William J. Flynn. Vol.6 (May 51902
25The Buf­fa­lo Times (Dec 7, 1902)
Chica­go Tri­bune (Apr 161903
26The Philadel­phia Times (Feb 27, 1896) 5
The Daily Town Talk, Alexan­dria LA (Nov 8, 19053
27Critch­ley, David (2009) The Ori­gin of Orga­nized Crime in Amer­i­ca: The New York City Mafia, 1891 – 1931. New York: Rout­ledge. 40
28The Scran­ton Repub­li­can (Nov 28, 1902). 2
Buf­fa­lo Couri­er (Dec 7, 1902) 2
NARA, RG 87, DRA. William J. Flynn & New York Vol­umes (1902~1930)
Warn­er, San­ti­no, Van‘t Riet. Early New York Mafia An Alter­na­tive The­o­ry. The Informer. May 2014. Thomas Hunt. 5
29NARA, RG 87, DRA. William J. Flynn. Vol. 6 (May 29, Jun 41902
30NARA, RG 87, DRA. William J. Flynn. Vol. 6 (Mar 231903