Joe Morello and the Black Handers

Giuseppe Morello 1902

Giuseppe “Joe” Morello 1902

By Joseph Bruno

They came from the mobbed-up city of Corleone, Sicily, but they perpetrated their murder and mayhem in the mean streets of New York City.

The co-leader of the Black Hand was a monstrosity of a man named Giuseppe (Joe) Morello. Morello was born in 1867 with a severely deformed right hand with only an elongated pinkie finger bent grotesquely downward. As a result, Morello was called “The Clutch-Hand,” “Little Finger,” and “One Finger Jack.”

Joe Morello’s father, Calogero Morello, died in 1872, and his mother, Angelina Piazza, remarried one year later to Mafioso Bernardo Terranova. Joe Morello’s stepfather and mother had four children together: Nick, Ciro, Vincent, and Salvatrice. There is some confusion about the exact relationships, but Nick Terranova, also known as Nick Morello, was, in fact, not Joe Morello’s brother but his half-brother. Salvatrice Terranova married a wicked man named Ignazio Lupo, The Wolf” Saietta, who later in America, along with Joe Morello, Nick, and Vincent Terranova, formed the hated and much-feared Black Hand. Saietta and Morello had equal power in the organization for all practical purposes.

While still in Corleone, Joe Morello and his three half-brothers were introduced by Bernardo Terranova into the Corleonesi Mafia (sometimes called the Fratuzzi), where they made their bones by killing whomever the Corleonesi bosses said needed to be killed. One such victim was Giovanni Vella, the head of a quasi-police force called the Guardie Campestri, or Field Guards, which patrolled Corleone on foot looking for Corleonesi Mafia members up to no good.

In 1888, Joe Morello was arrested for the murder of Vella, but then strange things began to happen.

First, the smoking gun Morello was arrested, carrying minutes after the Vella murder, oddly disappeared from the local carabinieri (police) lockup. The gun was snatched by an enterprising carabinieri, who was paid molto lira to do so.

Secondly, there was the slight problem of a woman named Anna Di Puma, who claimed she saw Joe Morello shoot Vella to death in a darkened alleyway. Two days after Vella’s demise, Anna Di Puma was sitting outside a friend’s house, having a nice conversation, when a gunman walked up behind her and shot her in the back, killing her instantly. Joe Morello was set free with no smoking gun and no witnesses to testify against him.

Morello decided it was time for him to start making some big money by dealing in the sale of “funny money,” or counterfeit bills. This went fine and dandy for a while, until in 1892, when Morello was arrested with a fistful of phony cash in his good left hand. Rather than face charges in Sicily, Joe Morello thumbed his nose at the Italian authorities and absconded secretly to America, settling in the Lower East Side of New York City. Little did it matter that Morello was tried “in absentia” and sentenced to six years in solitary confinement. Morello was a vast ocean away from punishment and ready to make his mark in the grand “Mountain of Gold.”

Ellis Island Today

Ellis Island

Soon after Joe Morello escaped from Sicily and landed illegally in America, Bernardo Terranova, his wife Angela, and six of their children boarded the ship Alsatia and headed for America to join Joe Morello. Also with them was Joe Morello’s wife, Lisa Marvelesi, with her two-month-old baby Calogero, who was named after Joe Morello’s blood father. As all immigrants did at the time, they passed through Ellis Island and entered America legally. While most immigrants came to America with only the clothes on their backs and a few measly bucks in their pockets, the Terranovas brought 18 pieces of luggage filled with the finest clothes and who knows how much money. Even though this certainly was not against American law, it should have raised some eyebrows among the Ellis Island officials since Sicilian Mafioso Bernardo Terranova listed his occupation as “laborer,” even though he was a well-known murderous Mafioso in Corleone.

When they first came to America, Morello and the Terranovas tried their best to fly under the radar of American law enforcement. Even though there was no communication between the Sicilian police and their American counterparts, there was still a three-year grace period after which an Italian immigrant became immune to deportation. The Terranovas joined Morello and settled in Manhattan’s Little Italy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At first, they tried to make a living in a series of legal jobs, including plastering.

Ignazio Saietta

Ignazio Saietta

Ignazio Saietta, known as “Lupo the Wolf,” had a different journey before he hooked up with Joe Morello and the Terranovas in America. Ignazio Saietta was born in Corleone, Sicily, on March 19, 1877. After being inducted into the Sicilian Mafia, Saietta escaped to America to avoid prosecution for the murder of Salvatore Morello and to hook up with Joe Morello and the Terranovas in a series of legal and illegal endeavors, most of which terrorized the Italian immigrants of New York City.

When they first arrived in New York City, Morello ostensibly tried to earn an honest living, but this was all a front for his illegal activities, like bookmaking and loan sharking. Soon flush with money, Morello invested in several small businesses, including a coal store, several bars and restaurants in Little Italy, and as far north as 13th Street, all of which soon folded for “lack of business.” In 1899, Morello returned to what he knew best: counterfeiting – but this time, the counterfeiting of American money.

Morello installed a small printing press in an apartment at 329 106th Street in what was known as Italian Harlem. He printed up mainly two-and-five-dollar bills, the most commonly used American currency. To spread these bills around New York City, Morello hired several men of Italian and Irish descent. The New York City police got wind of the counterfeiting ring, and several Morello workers were arrested. A man named Jack Gleason (not the comedian) immediately flipped and gave the police Morello as the operation’s mastermind. Morello was arrested, but none of the other men arrested dared to testify against Morello. Also, because Morello had only legitimate American currency in his possession when arrested, he walked out of jail without even being indicted. But this embarrassment taught Morello a severe lesson he’d never forget: never work closely with anyone except men he knew from Sicily.

It is unclear whether Joe Morello or Ignazio Saietta originally started the Black Hand extortion scheme in America. What is clear is that around 1898 or 1899, both Morello and Saietta, along with the Terranova brothers Vincenzo and Ciro, began terrorizing local Italian businessmen of some means by sending them “Black Hand” or “La Mano Nera” extortions letters. These letters threatened local businessmen with bombing their businesses or even death if the businessmen didn’t immediately cough up some very substantial cash. On the bottom of the extortion notes was the imprint of a “Black Hand,” which was made by a hand dipped in black ink (but due to the inroads law enforcement had made with fingerprinting at the time, the “Black Hand” was later drawn instead. If the businessman did not comply with the note’s demands, he would indeed get his business bombed, and sometimes he was tortured and even killed in the infamous Murder Stables, located at 323 East 107th Street in Harlem.

One such incident occurred in 1905, and the unfortunate victim was a butcher named Gaetano Costa, who received a Black Hand letter demanding $1,000. The letter instructed Costa to put the money into a loaf of bread, then hand the loaf of bread to a man who came into his butcher shop the next day and waved a red handkerchief. Costa refused to give in to the extortion, and two days later, two men marched into his butcher shop and shot Costa dead.

Joe Morello added an innovative new wrinkle to the Black Hand extortion scheme to assure his collections. Morello would mail an extortion letter to his victim and then wait near the victim’s store as the postman delivered the letter the following day. While the victim was reading the letter, Morello would mysteriously appear in the victim’s store. Noticing the consternation on his victim’s face, Morello would inquire about the cause of the victim’s distress. Knowing Morello’s high status in the local Mafia, the victim would hand him the letter, beg him to intercede with whoever had sent the letter, and maybe reduce the price, if not eliminate the payment. Morello would take the letter and tell the victim he would find out who had sent the letter and what could be done about it.

Of course, since Morello had sent the letter himself, the demand could not be withdrawn completely. And since Morello was now in possession of the letter, the victim did not have any evidence to give to the police about the extortion attempt.

In a few days, Morello would return to the victim’s store and tell a tall tale of how he could reason with the extortionist and reduce the demand to a smaller amount. At this point, the victim was only too glad to be alive and his store intact. So he would happily pay the sum to Morello, who would, in turn, promise he would deliver the money to the extortionist, putting this matter to rest once and for all.

Saietta and Morello also ran a counterfeiting operation originating in the sleepy upstate town of Highland, New York, 50 miles from New York City. Saietta was the hands-on partner, while Morello continued operating their rackets in New York City.

Yet, the Black Handers had an enemy named Deputy Inspector William Flynn. Flynn, an expert detective but a little talkative (especially when talking about himself), had been actively investigating Morello and Saietta since the “Barrel Murders” of 1903. Flynn also knew that Morello, Saietta, and his gang were running an extensive counterfeiting operation, but at present, Flynn could not uncover where the bills were being printed. But he was sure it was not being done in New York City.

Employing several undercover policemen, Flynn had what he called a “life surveillance” put on Morello, which was not exactly the proper term since, because of the lack of police manpower, Morello was only intermittently observed. Still, Morello was certainly on Flynn’s radar, as was Saietta, until he inexplicably disappeared from New York City and went into hiding in Highland, New York, where he oversaw the group’s counterfeit printing operations.

In early 1908, Saietta began a large-scale fraud scheme, using his wholesale network of grocery stores in New York City (he imported olive oil and other Italian delicacies from Italy). Saietta operated out of his Mott Street store; other grocery stores throughout the city were owned by Saietta’s confederates, who were active in the Black Hand extortion and a nationwide counterfeiting operation.

In November 1908, Saietta filed for bankruptcy concerning his import business. His Mott Street store was seized under the orders of the US court. When the receivers entered the store to examine the books, they found only $1,500 in inventory and over $100,000 in debts. The receivers also discovered that the week before he disappeared, Saietta had made over $50,000 worth of purchases, but those goods were nowhere to be found, and the sellers were now stiffed of the 50 grand. (This is called the standard “bust out” scheme, where you buy as much merchandise as possible on credit, sell the merchandise on the black market, pocket the cash, and then file for bankruptcy.)

Saietta’s cohorts in the scheme also filed for bankruptcy around the same time as Saietta did. Antonio Passananti, who had been sent to kill a New York cop named Joe Petrosino, owned a wholesale wine business in Brooklyn. He used the ” bust out” scheme to close his business and claim bankruptcy. When the receivers investigated Passananti’s store, they found records that he had given vast sums of money to Saietta before they both disappeared. The New York Times reported that a dozen other Italian dealers had also gone into the wind, resulting in total liabilities close to $500,000.

In November 1909, with Petrosino already dead, Saietta returned to New York City. With his lawyer Charles Barbier in tow, Saietta marched into the bankruptcy receiver’s office and told a tall tale of why he had suddenly left New York City. Saietta said he had been sent a Black Hand extortion letter, and fearing for his life, he fled to Baltimore, Maryland, then Buffalo, New York, before spending the final few weeks at his brother’s grocery store in Hoboken, New Jersey. Saietta hired a phalanx of lawyers to fight his creditors, and he returned to his old haunts in New York City, socializing with Morello and the other Black Handers. Saietta did not know that Inspector Flynn had his men following her, too. One day, they followed him to Highland, New York, and bingo; now they knew where the counterfeit bills were being printed.

Flynn now had enough evidence to arrest Morello, Saietta, and several other Black Handers who were in on the counterfeiting operation originating in Highland, New York. However, Flynn didn’t want to arrest the minor players first because he feared Morello would be tipped off and go into hiding. From his surveillance on Morello, Flynn knew Morello now lived in a tenement building at 207 East 107 Street. However, Flynn did not know in which apartment Morello resided. One of Flynn’s operatives was 17-year-old Thomas Callahan, who had been posing as a shoeshine boy on 107th Street.

On November 15, 1909, Callahan spotted Morello, Vincenzo Terranova, and another man heading down the block toward their building. Without an exact plan in place and wanting to know which apartment the Mafioso inhabited, Callahan immediately ran into the four-story building. The building was dark since the janitor had turned off the interior building lights. After Callahan stopped on the second floor of the tenement, he heard the three men enter the building and begin walking up the steps toward him. Callahan slithered quietly to the top floor, not knowing exactly what to do. He then realized that the Black Handers, who were always armed, might continue upwards and see him trapped on the 4th floor, with no reason for being there.

Here is where Callahan made a bold move that might have saved his life.

Callahan started heading down the stairs like he did not have a care in the world. Between the third and fourth story landing, Callahan came face to face with “The Clutch Hand.” Morello looked puzzled. Morello stared Callahan straight in the eye and said, “‘Scusa, please.” Callahan moved to one side of the stairs, and without saying another word, the three men passed Callahan and continued to the top floor. Callahan sped down the stairs and out of the building, expecting a bullet in the back, his heart pumping like a runaway train. As he hurried to where the other agents were waiting, Callahan turned around to see if he had been followed out of the building. He hadn’t.

Now, it was time for Flynn and his crew to make their move. Within minutes after Callahan had exited 207 East 107 Street, Flynn’s agents had surrounded the building, their eyes on the 4th-floor window, where the light was still on. Every so often, they could see one of the men in the room pass the window, but not once did any of the Mafioso look out of the window. That was a lucky break for Flynn. It wasn’t until 11 a.m. the next morning that the agents made their move.

With six of his best men, including Callahan, Flynn quietly entered the building and climbed the steps. Flynn had a skeleton key, which could open virtually any lock. When they reached the door of the 4th-floor apartment, Flynn pressed his ear to the door and heard no movement inside. He quietly inserted the skeleton key and unlocked the door. Flynn and his agents slowly entered the room with their guns pointed out in front of them. The door opened into the kitchen, but nobody was there. They opened the door to one of the bedrooms, and there was Morello, dead to the world, snoring lightly. His half-brother, Vincent Terranova, was on a second bed beside him and sawing wood.

“We had no intention of waking them,” Flynn later told the press. “Until we were sitting on them.”

Flynn gave the word to his men to pounce, and in seconds, both Morello and Vincent Terranova were in custody. Under Morello’s pillow, the agents found four loaded revolvers; under Terranova’s pillow – five. Indeed, if they were not sleeping, the two men would have put up a hell of a fight.

The noise the agents had made in snagging the two Mafioso awakened the rest of the apartment’s inhabitants. Three half-dressed men exited their bedroom in seconds, screaming and cursing in Italian. Then Morello’s wife, Lina, emerged from a third bedroom, her infant daughter in one arm and a huge knife in the other hand. It took two men to subdue Lina and relieve her of her weapon. Still holding her baby tight and incensed that the agents were doing their job, Lina spat on them in defiance.

The other three Italians tried to create a diversion so that specific evidence could be hidden and eventually destroyed. One of Flynn’s men spotted one of the Italians stuffing several letters into Lina Morello’s apron, which lay sprawled on the kitchen table. Thinking no one was watching, Lena grabbed her apron, pulled out several letters, and stuffed them into her infant’s clothing. Holding the baby in one arm, Lina tried to leave the room. Two burly agents pounced on her, and a fierce skirmish ensured. With Lina kicking, screaming, and cursing, Flynn was able to search the infant’s clothing. He found three letters in the infant’s still-clean diapers and several more in her apron. They were all Back Hand letters waiting to be sent to their intended targets. However, Flynn’s agents did not fare too well in their battle with “Hellcat Lina,” as was evidenced by the several dozen cuts and bruises on their battered bodies.

Flynn’s agents fanned out and searched the other apartments at 207 East 107 Street. When the dust settled, they had arrested fourteen Black Handers and counterfeiters (some men were both). As an added bonus, $3,000 in fake two-dollar bills was found in a paper bag under the bed in the apartment occupied by the Vasi brothers. It was a fine roundup for Flynn, but one big fish was nowhere to be found: Ignazio “Lupo the Wolf” Saietta.

As the search for Saietta continued, other members of Morello’s and Saietta’s crew were arrested throughout the city. Domenico Milone was arrested in a grocery store at East 97th Street. Antonio LoBaido, Frank Columbo, Giuseppe Mercurio, and Luciano Maddi were among the others who were snagged by the police.

Failure of communication within the New York City police department delayed the arrest of Saietta on the counterfeiting charges in Highland, New York. On November 18, 1909, just three days after the arrest of Morello and his gang, Saietta was arrested for extorting a man named Manzella, a Manhattan store owner, who claimed Saietta had ruined his business. On November 22, Manzella, not surprisingly, got cold feet and refused to appear in court for Saietta’s arraignment. The Manzella case was dropped, but Saietta was immediately arrested under a bench warrant dated April 21, which charged him with having counterfeit money in 1902. The bail was set at $5,000, which Saietta immediately posted. As a result, Saietta walked out of court a free man. When the New York City police department finally got their communication wires uncrossed, they realized they had their man in the clutches but let him escape.

On November 26, the New York City police department issued an internal proclamation saying that any officer who could arrest Saietta in connection with the Morello counterfeiting case would immediately made a first-grade detective. As it turned out, because of an unrelated case of piano theft, Saietta fell right into Flynn’s hands.

The piano was stolen in Hoboken, New Jersey, by a man described as an “Italian immigrant.” This man was traced to a home at 8804 Bay 16th Street, Bath Beach, in Brooklyn. When the police arrived there, low and behold, they found Saietta, who had rented the house under the name of Joe LaPresti. Lupo was arrested, along with fellow counterfeiter Giuseppe Palermo. When the police searched the house, they discovered a loaded revolver, Black Hand letters, phony passports, and three bank books under the names John Lupo, Joseph La Presti, and Giuseppe La Presti.

Saietta, realizing he should have used the phony passports while he had a chance to escape the country, offered the arresting officer a $100 bribe (presumably not in counterfeit cash). The police officer refused the bribe but received his promotion to first-grade detective.

The counterfeiting trial commenced on January 26, 1910, in a federal courthouse on Houston Street. It was a raucous carnival show, showcasing crying clowns as its main act. The judge was the honorable Judge George Ray, and there were eight total defendants, including the show stars: Joe “The Clutch Hand” Morello and Ignazio “Lupo the Wolf” Saietta. They were represented by attorney Mirabeau Towns, who was born in Alabama and went to law school in Atlanta, Georgia. Towns was notable because he sometimes presented his court addresses in verse, which couldn’t have pleased Judge Ray too much.

There were 60 witnesses in all put forth by the state. Still, the main witness against the counterfeiters was a timid little man named Antonio Comito, who the Black Handers kidnapped and, along with his wife, was forced to print the counterfeit bills in Highland, New York. Comito told the court that he and his wife printed $46,000 counterfeit bills.

Comito also said that when New York City Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino was killed, Saietta had commented, “We did a fine job with Petrosino.”

The trial concluded on February 19, 1910, and it took the jury only 1½ hours to return with the eight guilty verdicts.

When it came to the sentencing, the real theatrics began.

Morello was the first defendant called before the judge for sentencing. According to published reports, “Morello was cringing before the judge. He held out his left hand, deformed from birth, for the inspection of Judge Ray. This was the hand Morello was averse to showing to the jury that had tried him. He said he was the father of a family (through an interpreter), and if the dear court would only suspend the sentence, he would go to Italy at once.

“But Judge Ray told Morello that he might serve 15 years and pay a fine of $500 on the first count against him and serve ten years and pay another $500 on the second count against him. Morello didn’t wait for the interpreter to tell him about it. He dropped into a faint and had to be picked up and carried to the pen by the deputies.”

Big, bad Lupo the Wolf was next in line for the sentencing. Newspaper reports said, “Was Lupo the brave and nervy criminal he had been supposed to be? Not for a moment. He began to weep before he reached the bar, and by the time Judge Ray had finished asking him what he had to say, he had used up one whole handkerchief with his tears. His thick, fat body shook with emotion as he told the court how the murder charge against him (in Italy) was all wrong, and the police of two countries had hounded him.

“Judge Ray, getting in words between the sobs, told Lupo that he had passed sentence on himself as to the old murder case when he fled from Italy instead of standing trial.

“‘I believe you and Morello were at the head of this undertaking. You have been convicted. I sentence you to 15 years and a fine of $500 on the first count and 15 years and a similar fine on the second count,’ said the court, and Lupo was led back to finish his weeping in private.”

When the other six men had been sentenced by Judge Ray, the eight men were given a total of 150 years in prison.

The sentencing of Saietta and Morello effectively ended the Black Hand extortion letter scheme in America.

© Joseph Bruno, updated January 2024.

About the Author:  A Vietnam veteran in the United States Navy, Joseph J. Bruno started in the newspaper business in the mid-1970s as a sports columnist for the New York Tribune. During the 1970s and ’80s, Bruno was an associate editor for Boxing Illustrated and a monthly contributor to Ring Magazine. In 1986-1987, Bruno wrote a sports column for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York. Since then, he has written numerous articles for various magazines and books, both fiction and non-fiction. More information can be seen on his blog here: John Bruno on the MobSource:  Ezine Articles (dead link.)

Follow-up:  After Joe Morello was released from prison in 1920, he tried to retake control of his empire but found himself considered a threat to his former captain, now-turned-Mafia boss, Salvatore D’Aquila, who, within a year of Morello’s release, ordered Morello killed. As a result, Morello, along with several others under orders of death by D’Aquila, fled to Sicily for a while. When he returned to the United States, he became involved in the Castellammarese War, a bloody power struggle for control of the Italian-American Mafia between 1929 and 1931. One of the first victims of the war, Giuseppe Morello, was killed along with associate Joseph Perriano on August 15, 1930, while collecting cash receipts in his East Harlem office.

Ignazio Saietta was also released from prison in 1920 and was up to his old activities. However, sometime in the early 1930s, the emerging National Crime Syndicate leaders called Lupo in for a meeting and told him that he generated too much heat for their liking. They forced him to give up nearly all his rackets except for a small Italian lottery in Brooklyn. Lupo relied almost entirely on violence and terror, while the Syndicate used bribery first. On his own, Lupo then formed a protection racket involving bakers. In 1936, New York Governor Herbert Lehman petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt to have Lupo returned to prison for massive racketeering. He was returned to Atlanta Prison to serve a few years more on his original counterfeiting sentence. After his release, he returned to Brooklyn, where he died more or less unnoticed in 1947.

Also See:

20th Century History

The FBI and the American Gangster

Gangsters, Mobsters & Outlaws of the 20th Century

New York – The Empire State