The Barrel Murder

The discovery of a body stuffed into a barrel leads to the capture of “boss-of-bosses” Giuseppe Morello.

“One of the strangest cases that the Police Department of New York has ever had to deal with, and one of those on which it had to pronounce itself beaten, although morally certain it knew who the criminals were.” – Uncle Sam’s Modern Miracles (1914)


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, Vito 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 However, 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

DePrimo admission register
DePrimo admission sheet.

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

The Secret Service identified the victim as the stranger they had seen in Morello’s company the previous night. The police quickly arrested Morello as he walked along 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 counterfeting 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

“I know the man who was found in the barrel, he comes from Buffalo for the purpose of getting money that his companions were living from, he was condemned for false papers, four years and two months ago, he was made to remove the business, and if he survived the death of his father-in-law Di Priemo. The police have made the proper arrests, bring the condemned Di Priemo to see the assassins or his brother-in-law, promise his liberty and he will tell you many things, do as I write and you will discover all, the false papers are brought from Italy, try and see the the letters that come for Lupo, Lamia and the ‘Bull‘ from Talevinu and Partinnuca, see if you can make him tell you about Giallambardo who was sentenced to five years in Sing Sing, try and see the letters that come to Giovannia Pecoraro, Christie St. and her companion that came from Italy eight days ago, and bought plenty of false money, where she is, this Giovannia knows. If you get next to Dominico Pecoraro and Fanario and show them the electric chair, you will know all. -We salute. Your friends S.T”

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 pocketbook noting his travels to Sing Sing and Buffalo.

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 

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

  1. The Republic (Mar 23, 1901)
    New York NY Evening Telegram (Dec 12, 1910)  ⇡
  2. The Brooklyn Citizen (Jan 4, 1903) 1
    Fall River Daily Globe (Apr 22, 1903) 2 ⇡
  3. The Pittsburgh Press (Jan 18, 1903) 1&5 ⇡
  4. Washington Times (Jan 19, 22, 1903)  ⇡
  5. Flynn, William J. (1919) The Barrel Mystery. James A. McCann Company. 18 ⇡
  6. U.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 29, 1903)  ⇡
  7. NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.8 (Mar 13, 1903)  ⇡
  8. NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.8 (Mar 15, 1903)  ⇡
  9. NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 9, 14 1903)  ⇡
  10. NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 8, 1903)  ⇡
  11. NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 13, 1903)  ⇡
  12. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Apr 14, 1903) 1 ⇡
  13. NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 15, 1903)
    The World. Evening Edition (Apr 16, 1903) 1,2 ⇡
  14. NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 20, 1903)  ⇡
  15. The Boston Globe (Apr 20, 1903) 1
    The World. Evening Edition (April 20, 1903) 1 ⇡
  16. NARA, 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 ⇡
  17. NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 21, 22, 1903)  ⇡
  18. The Sun (April 23, 1903)
    New York Times (Apr 23, 1903) 16
    The Evening World. New York (Apr 23, 1903)  ⇡
  19. New York Tribune (April 28, 1903)
    The Baltimore Sun (Apr 27, 1903)  ⇡
  20. NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (Apr 26, 1903)  ⇡
  21. NARA, RG 87, DRA. Flynn. Vol.9 (May 8, 1903)  ⇡
  22. New York Times (Jan 30, 1904)  ⇡
  23. Wilkes Barre Semi Weekly Record (Oct 27, 1905) 7 ⇡