The Barrel Murder

1903. The dis­cov­ery of a body stuffed into a bar­rel leads to the cap­ture of ‘boss-of-bosses’ Giuseppe Morello.

Morristown Fives

A new coun­ter­feit five-dollar note was detect­ed in March 1901. Based on cur­ren­cy print­ed by the Nation­al Iron Bank of Mor­ris­town, New Jer­sey, it was described as a decep­tive coun­ter­feit with pro­duc­tion esti­mat­ed at $250,000.1 Secret Ser­vice agents arrest­ed Giuseppe Di Primo, Isidoro Cro­cev­era and Giuseppe Gial­lom­bar­do for pass­ing the coun­ter­feits in Yonkers in late Decem­ber 1902.2

Just weeks later, agents arrest­ed Vito LaD­u­ca and two asso­ciates in Pitts­burgh, after track­ing them from New York to San Fran­cis­co and many cities across the south. Their cap­ture was described as “most sen­sa­tion­al arrest in the his­to­ry of the detec­tive bureau.”3 Vito Cot­tone attempt­ed escape by lung­ing at detec­tives with a knife and then flee­ing into near­by rail yards. Offi­cers chased him down using a com­man­deered train and man­aged to knock him out by hurl­ing bricks after him. He was taken to Mercy Hos­pi­tal, where he then tried to kill a nurse using his din­ner knife.4 

Counterfeit note
"Morristown Five"

The Mor­ris­town coun­ter­feits were being dis­trib­uted under the direc­tion of Mafia lead­ers Ignazio Lupo and Giuseppe Morel­lo.5 The arrests in Pitts­burgh and Yonkers led to a vio­lent gang­land exe­cu­tion in New York and ulti­mate­ly to the cap­ture of the Mafiosi.

Fol­low­ing their arrest in Yonkers, Di Primo, Cro­cev­era and Gial­lom­bar­do were locked up in New York City’s Lud­low Street Jail. They were soon vis­it­ed by Ignazio Lupo, who arranged pay­ment of their attor­ney. Lupo later attend­ed the trial and brought news of the case to Giuseppe Morel­lo.6 

The trio was found guilty of pass­ing the Mor­ris­town coun­ter­feits on 13 March, 1903.7 That week­end Lupo, Cas­cio­fer­ro and “prac­ti­cal­ly all of the Morel­lo gang” were observed hold­ing a meet­ing in the rear of their Prince Street saloon head­quar­ters.8

The Secret Ser­vice planned a sting oper­a­tion against the group. Agents sup­plied an infor­mant with marked bills to use in the pur­chase of coun­ter­feits from the gang.9 Eleven search war­rants were obtained for the raids of homes and busi­ness­es.10 The plan was stalled on April 13, after an unfa­mil­iar face appeared in the gang’s com­pa­ny. Morel­lo and Cas­cio­fer­ro were seen “talk­ing earnest­ly” between them­selves before tak­ing the stranger to the back of a butch­er shop at 16 Stan­ton Street.11

The Gruesome Discovery

At 5:30 the next morn­ing, Frances Con­nors, who was mak­ing her way to work, saw a sus­pi­cious bar­rel at East Eleventh Street. Look­ing inside, she was hor­ri­fied to find a male corpse. Police with­drew the body and dis­cov­ered it had been near­ly decap­i­tat­ed by a deep knife wound across the throat.12

When Secret Ser­vice agents iden­ti­fied the vic­tim as the stranger seen in Morello’s com­pa­ny the pre­vi­ous night, the police began to round up the gang. Morel­lo was picked up on the Bow­ery. Lupo was arrest­ed at his house, where a large amount of cor­re­spon­dence was taken as evi­dence. Vito Lad­u­ca, dis­charged for lack of evi­dence in the recent Pitts­burgh case, was cap­tured in a ten­e­ment oppo­site the Stan­ton Street butch­er shop. More than a dozen arrests were made, but Cas­cio­fer­ro could not be locat­ed in the city.13

Morello gang and associates
Morello gang and associates

Five days after the mur­der, the police caught a lucky break when an anony­mous let­ter aided in the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the bar­rel mur­der vic­tim. The let­ter claimed the dead man had arrived in New York to help secure money owed to the recent­ly impris­oned Giuseppe Di Primo.14

Detec­tive Pet­rosi­no vis­it­ed Sing Sing Prison, where Di Primo rec­og­nized a photo of the vic­tim as his brother-in-law, Benedet­to Mado­nia.15 The next day, Pet­rosi­no moved on to Buf­fa­lo to inter­view Madonia’s wife. She declared her hus­band had been a mem­ber of “a secret soci­ety” and had trav­eled to New York to assist Di Primo.16

Petrosino notes in 1903
Lt. Petrosino's notebook from 1903

Morel­lo was placed on the wit­ness stand on April 22. He became “very ner­vous” when con­front­ed with a let­ter Mado­nia had sent him from Pitts­burgh.17 The let­ter revealed Morel­lo had instruct­ed Mado­nia to trav­el to Pitts­burgh to help secure the release of the two recent­ly impris­oned gang mem­bers. Not­ing his fail­ure in that assign­ment, Mado­nia lev­eled abuse and crit­i­cism against Morel­lo, accus­ing him of “being unwill­ing to spend any money” to help his men and referred to the treach­ery against his brother-in-law De Primo.18

With most of the gang still in jail, threat­en­ing let­ters were sent out from New York to Ital­ian com­mu­ni­ties in the US. They demand­ed dona­tions to help build a legal defense fund. Dis­ap­point­ing col­lec­tions in Newark led ner­vous Ital­ians to buy up second-hand guns to pro­tect them­selves, while pas­tors appealed to their con­gre­ga­tions to remain calm.19 One of the gang, who had been released on bail with the help of con­gress­man “Big Tim” Sul­li­van, was heard to remark that it was Madonia’s own fault that he was killed.20 

Informer's letter sent to the D.A.

Coroner’s Inquest

Petto the Ox
Tomasso Petto "The Ox"

A coroner’s inquest was incon­clu­sive. On May 8, the jury held that Benedet­to Mado­nia was “mur­dered by some per­son unknown.”21 Near­ly all the sus­pects were freed. Efforts to pros­e­cute the case ended on Jan­u­ary 29, 1904, when key sus­pect Tomas­so Petto was final­ly dis­charged from custody. 

Dr. Albert West­on, the coroner’s physi­cian, said, “I have never heard of a more dis­grace­ful pro­ceed­ing in my life than to let this man escape pun­ish­ment … The man who rec­om­mend­ed the dis­charge of ‘Petto the Bull’ ought to be removed from office imme­di­ate­ly.”22

In 1905, Petto was mur­dered in Penn­syl­va­nia by an unknown gun­man. Giuseppe Di Primo had been released from prison just two weeks ear­li­er.23


1The Repub­lic (Mar 23, 1901)
New York NY Evening Telegram (Dec 121910
2The Brook­lyn Cit­i­zen (Jan 4, 1903) 1
Fall River Daily Globe (Apr 22, 19032
3The Pitts­burgh Press (Jan 18, 1903) 1&5
4Wash­ing­ton Times (Jan 19, 221903
5Flynn, William J. (1919) The Bar­rel Mys­tery. James A. McCann Com­pa­ny. 18
6U.S. Nation­al Archives and Records Admin­is­tra­tion (here­after referred to as NARA), RG 87, Daily Reports of Agents, (here­after referred to as DRA). William Flynn. Vols. 8 – 9. (Feb 26, Mar 12, Apr 291903
7NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.8 (Mar 131903
8NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.8 (Mar 151903
9NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 9, 14 1903
10NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 81903
11NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 131903
12The Brook­lyn Daily Eagle (Apr 14, 19031
13NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 15, 1903)
The World. Evening Edi­tion (Apr 16, 1903) 1,2
14NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 201903
15The Boston Globe (Apr 20, 1903) 1
The World. Evening Edi­tion (April 20, 19031
16NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 20, 1903)
The Evening Telegram (Apr 20, 1903) 1
The Buf­fa­lo Times (Apr 20, 1903) 1
The Buf­fa­lo Enquir­er (Apr 20, 1903) 1,2
17NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 21, 221903
18The Sun (April 23, 1903)
New York Times (Apr 23, 1903) 16
The Evening World. New York (Apr 231903
19New York Tri­bune (April 28, 1903)
The Bal­ti­more Sun (Apr 271903
20NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 261903
21NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (May 81903
22New York Times (Jan 301904
23Wilkes Barre Semi Week­ly Record (Oct 27, 19057