Italian Americans have a love-hate relationship with the Mafia. They love The Godfather and The Sopranos, but object to being lumped in with that criminal element. Most Americans, whether their ancestors came from Italy or someplace else, have no real life experience with the Mafia. Mine did and it changed my family’s history.
We had few photos of my grandfather, Dominick Buccafurri. The one I remember was a wedding photo that hung in my grandmother’s parlor. Posing beside his new bride, he looked handsome and successful. (That oval, sepia-toned image and others were destroyed by my mother when she descended into dementia.) I pictured Dominick as the young Vito Corleone played by Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II. And like that young Italian, according to my mother, he was respected by his peers, rising to become a foreman in the carpet mill where he worked. He was able to provide a comfortable life for my grandmother and their three daughters, my mother and two aunts. After he was killed, their future was drastically changed. With no life insurance, unheard of in the early 1920s, my grandmother went on welfare and opened her large home to boarders. While other children came home from school, did homework, and went to bed, my mother and her sisters spent their evenings earning money doing “mend-its”—attaching buttons to cards. To support the family, my mother, a budding artist, dropped out of school in the eighth grade. She paid for her middle sister, Frances, to attend beauty school, and the youngest, Grace, was able to graduate from high school. Years later, the discrepancy in their educations would lead to resentment and estrangement.
Growing up, we were told about my grandfather and given sketchy details surrounding his murder. My grandmother was often reluctant to talk about it while my mother would embellish the story each time with new details. Since my mother was only six when her father died, what she reported was second even third hand information. There was no documentation (or so we thought) and my sister, my brother, and I were left to piece together what little we knew. The internet, however, has changed all that, with coroner reports and newspaper accounts now available online. One of my cousins, perhaps the most persistent among us, kept digging and turned up information that has helped to fill in the blanks.
Unlike the plots involving the Corleones or the Sopranos, my family drama didn’t play out in New York’s Little Italy or New Jersey, large urban areas where the Mafia once flourished. My grandparents settled in Amsterdam, New York, a mid-sized city upstate on the Mohawk River. Why there? I used to wonder. When Ellis Island in its pre-restoration state was reopened to visitors in 1976, we listened to a tour guide talk about the language difficulties experienced by arriving immigrants. Many Italians, she said, who wanted to join relatives living on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan, instead were put on trains for Amsterdam, New York. True? It seemed one possible explanation. Another might be that the cities and towns along the Mohawk River were becoming industrialized and in need of skilled labor. Italians, like my grandfather, would provide those talents.
My mother never referred to the organized crime that plagued Amsterdam as the Mafia but rather the “Black Hand” or “La Mano Nera,” in Italian. The Black Hand was the precursor of the better organized, more criminal Mafia and often thrived in America’s smaller cities and towns. Sources believe the Black Hand originated in Naples as early as the 1750s, and was brought to the U.S. with the first waves of immigrants. Extortion was the group’s main tool, threatening others with harm even death if protection money wasn’t paid. Those who stood up to such ultimatums often were targeted and killed.
Was that the fate that befell my grandfather? Of course, that’s the theory I prefer to accept, that he was the good guy fighting against corruption, battling for his family and friends, and that his stand signed his death warrant. Combing through the reports, there are inconsistencies, including his name which is reported in the coroner’s report as “Dominick Roccafuri” and in the Amsterdam Evening Recorder as “Dominico Boccafurni.” Some questions are answered, others are raised and may never see resolution. But there’s enough evidence available to reconstruct a plausible scenario of events.
On Sunday, October 28, 1923, my grandfather was shot and killed by Angelo Caruso. There’s no doubt Angelo fired the fatal shots. What’s less clear is the motive behind the shooting and whether anyone else was complicit in executing the crime. Angelo’s cousin, Vincenzo, who coincidentally lived in an apartment in my grandfather’s home, was the prime witness during the coroner’s inquest implicating his cousin in the murder. Yet, two years later, Vincenzo himself was gunned down by Joseph Montarelli, described as a good friend of my grandfather who was out to seek revenge for his friend’s death.
According to a report in the Amsterdam Evening Recorder headlined: “Black Hand Gun Said to Be Behind Murder,” Angelo Caruso and a companion (identified in the coroner’s report as Frank Portate) traveled together from New York City to Amsterdam, “engaged in `collecting’ in the name of the so called Black Hand.” The story went on to say: “There are rumors in connection with the killing to the effect that Italian residents have been called upon to `give up,’” and that my grandfather was targeted when he refused.
A later newspaper story printed when Angelo Caruso was caught, said that Caruso reacted in self defense, only shooting after my grandfather had hit Caruso with his fists and “a blunt weapon” and threatened to “finish the job.” Yet that version is contradicted in the coroner’s report where several witnesses said that my grandfather never touched Caruso but rather was called names (“carrion”) by an “insolent” Caruso, then goaded into stepping outside to settle a dispute. Dominick, according to witnesses, told Caruso: “I don’t want any trouble because I have a family to take care of.” Caruso keep pressing and Dominick finally agreed, saying, “If you insist, I will have to go outside and reason with you.” A few seconds later, shots rang out.
My grandfather, who was unarmed, took three bullets to the chest. Dr. Julius Schiller responded to the emergency call and told the inquest: “I found the man lying on the floor of the kitchen. Some people were busy about the man and they told me he had been shot. He was still living. I made a hurried examination and I found that the man had three flesh bullet wounds in a triangular space about the middle of the chest. This man died within a few minutes of my arrival.”
Reading over the coroner’s report, I’ve come to the conclusion that Vincenzo Caruso was also involved in the murder. He contradicts himself several times in the report, first saying he only went outside after hearing the shots, then, later in the questioning, reporting that he actually saw his cousin fire the fatal shots. Was he making sure that my grandfather stayed within range of his cousin’s gun? Did my grandfather’s friend, Joseph Montarelli, know Vincenzo was involved and decide to avenge a wrongful death? The other people who were in the house at the time—a residence at 4 Maple Street belonging to Pasquela DeMaria and his wife, Carmelo—testified that they may have heard the shots but saw nothing. Pressure by the Black Hand to remain silent?
I grew up believing that my grandfather’s killer was never arrested. My mother told us that a collection was taken up to pay for the killer’s passage back to Italy. She also told us that each month she went to a local bar to give money to a man who promised to find the killer. It’s too late to ask my grandmother but because she didn’t speak or read English at the time, the authorities may have tried and failed to report to her what was being done to bring her husband’s killer to justice. Others might have taken advantage of her naiveté.
In fact, local authorities performed on a high level, never letting up on the investigation, coordinating with police departments in New York City, Buffalo, and Youngstown, Ohio, to finally track down and arrest Angelo Caruso. They also worked quickly to identify and capture Vincenzo’s killer in Montreal before he could make it out of the country by boat.
Even the information on the internet doesn’t answer all the questions. There are hints of long standing feuds, going back to Calabria, Italy, where my grandfather and his assailant were born and lived before emigrating to America. Were there simmering jealousies, vendettas, battles that survived that journey across the Atlantic only to touch down in a new land, affecting several generations?
What I do know is that my mother’s life was forever changed by those bullets that killed her father. She talked about how she idolized her dad, how he promised to buy her a piano so that she could study music. How he would come home from the factory with treats, sweet cakes, ice cream. How those first few Christmases that she remembered were joyous celebrations with many presents under the tree. After his death, the only Christmas presents were delivered by volunteers from the Salvation Army.
America, however, offers many opportunities for success. My mother may not have lived the life she had envisioned had her father lived, but she lived a good life and, I like to think, she would be reassured that the man who killed her father was indeed caught and paid for his crime.
Charlene Giannetti, who was born and grew up in Amsterdam, New York, is the co-founder and editor of Woman Around Town. She now divides her time between apartments in New York City and Alexandria, Virginia.