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 2: The Calabrian Connection

  • October 19, 2017
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This illustration of murder victim Gabriele Fiore was published in the June 1937 issue of Daring Detective magazine.
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This advertisement appeared in the Washington newspapers during the trial of Angelo Fragassa in late November 1922.
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This photo and caption was published in the Washington Observer in late November 1922.

The story so far: The trials of the accused killers of Canonsburg mill worker Gabriele Fiore begin. Judge Erwin Cummins, fearing intimidation of witnesses, clears the courtroom of spectators. Prosecutors portray one of the defendants, Marcantonio Daniele, as the Canonsburg chief of the Black Hand, a secretive cabal of ruthless criminals.

Southwestern Pennsylvania's abundant reserves of coal, oil and natural gas and its navigable rivers made it an ideal location for the development of heavy industry in the later years of the 19th century. What the primarily agricultural area lacked, however, was the manpower to mine the coal, to build the mills and stoke the furnaces.

That manpower would come from Europe. The coal and steel barons recruited workers in countries where poverty and hopelessness were most present. And so they came, in waves of hundreds of thousands, from Italy, Poland, Austria-Hungary, Croatia. The Greeks, Czechs and Slovaks came pouring in through New York's Ellis Island, seeking whatever work they could find.

Italy had been newly unified under one flag, but its government was weak and in no position to aid the poor, suppress violence or help those, particularly in the south and on the island of Sicily, recover from natural disasters. In the 1880s, about 300,000 immigrated to the United States; in the 1890s, 600,000. In the decade after that, more than 2 million came, and by 1920, when immigration began to taper off, more than 4 million Italians had left Italy for America.

Most were men who came with the intention of working for a while, then returning home with their earnings. Many did, but many more stayed and used their money to bring their wives and family members here. Once those families were established, other family members and friends would immigrate and settle in the same communities where they had relations, and so it was not unusual for a town to have a neighborhood populated by people mostly from the same country or even the same region of that country.

Terry Necciai of Monongahela, an architectural historian, has studied Italian immigration in the Mon Valley extensively. Many came to work in the 150 coal mines operating in Washington County in the early years of the 20th century, according to Necciai, and settled in towns that formed around the mines, later taking up again their trades as blacksmiths, carpenters, barbers, grocers and musicians.

Immigrants from Tuscany in central Italy first settled in Dunlevy, Monongahela and Charleroi, and later across the river in Monessen. “The Italians in Donora came in a later wave,” Necciai said. The Donora Italians were from the southernmost parts – Sicily, Naples and the “toe” of the Italian “boot,” Calabria.

Edith Costa Niverth's grandfather arrived in Donora around 1895 with his two brothers. He was a bricklayer and intended to work for a year and return to his home in Mendicino, Calabria.

“My grandmother, with my mother (then 6 years old) and uncle, came to visit for six months,” Mrs. Niverth said, “but my grandmother got pregnant, so they stayed. My grandmother never wanted to live here.”

Mrs. Niverth's grandfather worked on the construction of the wire mill in Donora and in 1903 moved to Marianna, where he helped build the brick houses for the workers of the Pittsburg & Buffalo Mining Co. He would later work on the construction of another model housing development: Donora's Cement City.

Mrs. Niverth still lives in the same house in Marianna in which she was born 93 years ago.

For as long as government has existed, so have those who rebelled against it. But it wasn't until 1642, during the English Civil War, that the term anarchism entered our language.

Anarchism is a political theory holding all forms of government authority to be unnecessary and envisioning a society based on voluntary cooperation. It first surfaced in the United States in the middle of the 19th century and was adopted by groups advocating socialism and communism. Later in the 20th century it would be teamed with pacifism.

In the late 1800s and early years of the 20th century, anarchism was most often associated – particularly by the barons of manufacturing and mining – with the formation of labor unions and those striving for workers' rights such as the eight-hour day.

The Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886, after which four anarchists were hanged, brought anarchism to the attention of the American public. And the assassination of Italy's Umberto I in 1900 and U.S. President William McKinley in 1901 by anarchists solidified the movement's violent and sinister reputation.

The Monongahela Valley with its steel mills and coke plants was fertile ground for labor unrest and anarchistic sentiment. But those fighting for the rights of workers were often wrongly labeled anarchists and blamed for all kinds of violent crime.

In February 1906, Monongahela Mayor H. T. Billick charged three anarchists – John Spadi, Constantino Levi and Petro Foracika – with “blackmail, conspiracy and crimes against the United States.” They were accused of sending a letter through the mail to Lucy Pezzoni, threatening her life. Police Chief Leo Logan and Washington County Coroner W.H. Sipe testified that “literature and pictures believed to be of an anarchistic character were found in the homes of Spadi and Levi.”

But the crime for which they were accused had little to do with politics. It was the type of crime – extortion, primarily of Italians by Italians – that had just recently surfaced a few miles upriver in Donora and would later spread throughout the county.

In 1906, newspapers – and Mayor Billick – were using the terms “Blackhander” and “anarchist” almost interchangeably. It would take a while for the dust to clear and the criminals to be seen for what they were.

Canonsburg's first Italians arrived in the 1890s and dug the ditches for the borough's sewers. Others, especially from Calabria, followed to work in the factories and the mines not far from town. They made their homes in South and East Canonsburg, where many of their descendants still live.

The poverty and desperation that had gripped Southern Italy and Sicily in the late 19th century had given rise to an insidious criminal presence. Honest work was hard to find and offered little reward; acquiring wealth with the thrust of a knife was easier. The ships that sailed from Palermo and Naples carried not just the industrious and desperate optimists willing to take any job, but also the thugs.

James Barber has been researching the Black Hand in the Ohio River Valley for 16 years. He and three others he has been working with have created an index of more than 2,000 names of people associated with the Black Hand. He has shared a good amount of the data he has collected for the writing of this story.

“We have traced most of them back to Reggio Calabria, where my family comes from,” Barber said.

“My project started with my own ancestors who were gunned down between September 1924 and October 1925,” Barber said. “My great-grandfather and great-uncle were killed in Youngstown, where my family settled, and my other great-uncle was found dead in Sewickley Heights, Pa., all Black Hand related.”

The victim's history

Three days before his 16th birthday, Gabriele Fiore and his stepmother boarded the freighter Ancona at Naples, bound for America. They had come from Biccari, a town of about 4,700 residents at the time, in the province of Foggia, east of Naples. They arrived in New York on Dec. 8, 1911, intending to join Gabriele's uncle, Lorenzo Fiore, in Washington, D.C. Years later, Gabriele would declare on official documents that Lorenzo was his closest relation. At just 5 feet, Gabriele Fiore was still three inches taller than his 44-year-old stepmother, who carried their combined fortune of $40.

By 1915, when he first applied for naturalization, Fiore was living in East Canonsburg, working at the largest factory in town – the Standard Tin Plate mill. He declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen in October 1916.

In its May 29, 1922, story on the murder of Fiore, The Daily Notes of Canonsburg reported that the victim was industrious and successful, that he had saved a considerable amount of money from his job at the mill and was planning a visit home to Italy soon. It would later come out that he had withdrawn the money from the bank on May 28 and planned to depart the next day.

The newspaper also noted: “When the World War was on, he was registered June 5, 1918, for service, and was to have left service with the contingent scheduled for departing camp on Nov. 11, 1918, the day the armistice was signed.”

Canonsburg police became aware of some trouble brewing in the east end that night of May 28 – a group of men harassing someone – and knew generally who was involved. Reinforcements were called for, but by the time they arrived in that area of town in the small hours of the morning, Fiore was dead. It was the second murder of an Italian in East Canonsburg in less than a week. On May 24, Sam Coluscio had been gunned down outside the Standard Tin Plate Co. office.

Police quickly arrested their main suspect – Angelo Fragassa, one of the troublemakers seen a few hours earlier. Then they roused Marcantonio Daniele from his bed and hauled him and his son, John, to jail.

The Danieles and many others in their neighborhood were Calabrians; Fiore was not, and neither was Fragassa, the young barber accused of gunning down Fiore, although both were from the south of Italy, just east of Naples. In fact Fragassa had grown up in the village of Bovino, just 12 miles from Fiore's birthplace. The two were just two years apart in age, and given that they both ended up living within shouting distance of each other, it's possible they were acquainted in their native country.

Whatever personal connection existed between victim and killer was of no concern to Washington County's district attorney, however. He and his detectives were determined to end finally the reign of terror in Canonsburg, and to do it they would need to connect Marcantonio Daniele, the reputed leader of the borough's Black Hand gang, to the murder. They would need witnesses for that – a tall order considering how fearful citizens were of revenge by the borough's thugs.

Surprisingly, one person had the courage to step forward: a housewife named Erminia Orsino.

Next: Dynamite and Daggers

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