About The Series

“Pay or Die: A Black Hand Story,” a seven-part serial by Park Burroughs, chronicles the rise and fall in Washington County of what may be called the precursor to the Mafia in the United States.

Pay or Die: A story of the Black Hand – Chapter 4: Spilling Secrets

  • March 26, 2017
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This diagram of the murder scene, part of the Joseph A. Solobay Collection, appeared in the June 1937 edition of Daring Detective magazine.
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Alfonso Polifrone (Photo courtesy of Erma Orsino)
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Erminia “Minnie” Orsino (Photo courtesy of Erma Orsino)
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Angelo Fragassa

The story so far: Extortion and violent crime associated with the Black Hand first arrived in Washington County in 1906 and quickly spread. Dozens of bodies were found, many around Canonsburg, over the next 15 years. Dynamite was a favorite tool of intimidation for the Black Hand. On May 29, 1922, housewife Erminia Orsino witnesses something strange and frightening out her window, just before Gabriele Fiore is murdered.

Minnie Orsino was born in Italy in 1895. Her husband, Ottavo, from Montegallo, northeast of Rome, had left their home for America in 1908. Minnie followed him in 1909 with her infant son, Olianor. She gave birth to her second son, Olando, in West Virginia in 1911.

Minnie was 27 years old the day Gabriele Fiore was murdered.

She had heard a commotion outside her home at the corner of Third Street and Elm Alley in Canonsburg’s East End around 2 a.m. the morning of May 29, 1922, and went to the window to investigate. She witnessed one of the men kneel and kiss the hand of another, who uttered the word “corogno.” Minnie spoke Italian, of course, but did not understand the word. The two men then walked around the corner of her house and down Elm Alley. Minnie grabbed a rolling pin, thinking the men might try to break into her house. Through another window she watched as the men walked about 200 feet down the alley and stopped at the Jacobi house. Then she saw one of the men climb into an open window of the house with the assistance of the other.

A few minutes later, Minnie heard a gunshot. So did patrolmen John Mackey and W.M. Morrison.

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Alfonso Polifrone (Photo courtesy of Erma Orsino)

•Police found Gabriele Fiore, 25, lying on his back with his hands crossed against his chest, a bullet hole in his temple. The investigators theorized that he had fallen where he was shot. They noted that his hat was still on his head. One of the windows was open, as well as a door that allowed private entrance to the rented room.

A 27-year-old barber, Angelo Fragassa, was quickly arrested. Marcantonio Daniele, 40, was dragged from his bed by police and county detective William B. Dinsmore a few hours later along with his son, John, 18. The three would await their arraignment and November trial in Washington County Jail.

District Attorney Howard Hughes was granted a request to try the defendants separately and would begin with Fragassa, the accused triggerman, on Nov. 20. A few days before that date he arranged for Minnie Orsino to be brought to Washington and placed under protection because he had learned that suspicious characters had been hanging around her Canonsburg house and inquiring about her.

Hughes and his assistant, Warren Burchinal, had gathered about a dozen witnesses to testify for the prosecution, but three of them would be critical in securing the first-degree murder convictions they sought. One of those three witnesses was Minnie Orsino. The other two were at the time inmates at Western Penitentiary, serving long sentences for crimes attributed to the Black Hand – James Pizzarella and Alfonso Polifrone.

The three witnesses were not unknown to each other. And when the trials were finished, they would share an intimate connection.

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Erminia “Minnie” Orsino (Photo courtesy of Erma Orsino)

It was the intention of District Attorney Hughes to crush the Black Hand in Canonsburg, but that would hardly be an easy task. Of the dozens of killings over the past three years, few cases were prosecuted, and even fewer convictions achieved. And of those convictions, none was for first-degree homicide.

In fact, the last first-degree conviction had occurred 10 years earlier when Jan Ribarick was found guilty of killing his wife and two boarders at his Canonsburg home. Ribarick was hanged in the county jail in May 1912, that being the last hanging in the jail before the Legislature, in 1913, substituted death in the electric chair to carry out capital punishment.

As the trial of Angelo Fragassa commenced, word around the courthouse was that the chance of a conviction was possible, but not in the first degree. When he was arrested, Fragassa insisted, “Me no shoot nobody!” But his story changed at trial, and his defense attorneys, Kirk Wrenshall and Alex Templeton, would attempt to convince the jury that Fragassa had shot Fiore, but only in self-defense.

Mrs. Orsino’s testimony was critical not just in placing Fragassa at the scene of the slaying, but also in implicating Marcantonio Daniele, the reputed head of the Canonsburg Black Hand. The prosecution would seize on the episode outside her window as evidence that Daniele had ordered the killing.

On the second day of Fragassa’s trial, Judge Erwin Cummins ordered all spectators out of the courtroom for the remainder of the trial. Newspaper reporters, however, were allowed to stay and recorded that Minnie stuck to her testimony about the details of the fateful night, even under withering cross-examination by defense attorney Wrenshall.

•The prosecution claimed that the meaning of “corogno” was “to kill” in the secret language of the Black Hand, but another witness said the word might mean something filthy or foul. Perhaps the witness was referring to the Italian word “carogna,” which means carrion.

The commonwealth would use the testimony of the two witnesses from Western Pen to bolster the claim of a secret language and to finger Daniele as the local Black Hand chief.

Alfonso Polifrone was serving his third year of a 12-year sentence for pandering. He was the leader of a “white slavery” gang that kidnapped young women, took them to Canonsburg and forced them to be prostitutes. A year earlier, he was tried for the murder of a Pittsburgh policeman, but a lack of evidence moved the judge to order him acquitted. Polifrone’s testimony would prove as damaging as Mrs. Orsino’s.

Polifrone said that Daniele was indeed the head of the Canonsburg Black Hand Society and that he had attended meetings with him in Canonsburg and Pittsburgh. He said that the Black Hand had a language all its own and that he had taught it to Fragassa. It was not mentioned at the trial, but Fragassa was also an accused member of Polifrone’s white-slavery gang, although he was not prosecuted for it.

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Angelo Fragassa

Polifrone said the mission of the society was to rob and kill, if necessary, to get money for its members. The leader has absolute power over the members; if they do not obey his orders, he will kill them.

“Polifrone illustrated in a graphic manner how member were sworn into the Black Hand Society,” Canonsburg’s Daily Notes reported. “He took five penholders, representing stilettos, and placed them on a white cloth, in star formation, with points touching, then covered them with another cloth. Then when the member was sworn in, he said, the stilettos were taken up and held by the members, points touching, while the oath was administered. The penalty of death will be inflicted on anyone who reveals the secrets of the society, he said.”

The witness also told of another ritual in which a string is tied around the tip of a stiletto to prevent the blade from penetrating too far when a new member is stabbed in the back of the hand. The other members then taste the blood of the initiate.

James Pizzarella was called to the stand, and not having heard any of Polifrone’s testimony, described the Black Hand initiation ceremonies precisely the same. Pizzarella was serving nine to 10 years for second-degree homicide for his part in the killing of Pennsylvania State Trooper Andrew Czap.

Prosecutors contended that Polifrone and Pizzarella had no contact with each other at Western Penitentiary and no opportunity to corroborate their stories.

The jurors in the Fragassa trial retired for deliberations at 2:55 p.m. Friday, Nov. 24. Jury selection had already begun in another courtroom for the trial of Marcantonio Daniele.

The jury had been locked up every night at the courthouse since Monday. After nearly 12 hours of heated deliberation, they reached a verdict at 2:30 a.m., and at 11:30 Saturday morning filed into the courtroom. Awaiting them was the slender, 5-foot-six-inch defendant, Angelo Fragassa.

“As he sat waiting for the jury, he was very pale and nervous, chewing gum continually as he sat waiting for the verdict of life or death,” The Washington Reporter stated in its edition that afternoon.”

When jury foreman C.V. Linn read the verdict, according to the newspaper, “the announcement came as a complete surprise to all.”

Next: Threats of Revenge

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