The story so far: After 15 years of violent crime committed by Italians on Italians in Canonsburg, Washington County’s district attorney hopes to crush the gangster cabal there with the trial of three defendants. His three main witnesses, a housewife and two Western Penitentiary inmates, are placed under heavy guard during the trial of Angelo Fragassa, in which secrets of the Black Hand are revealed.
Foreman C. V. Linn stood in the jury box, faced the bench and answered Judge Edwin Cummins’ question.
“We find the defendant, Angelo Fragassa, guilty of murder in the first degree,” Linn said.
The Washington Reporter, in its Saturday evening edition, reported: “As the announcement was made, Fragassa never changed his position. He was slouched down in his chair, his eyes riveted on the faces of the jury, his own face very white. The only sign that he knew what was going on was that he chewed gum a little faster.”
In spite of a plethora of homicide cases before Washington County Court, a first-degree conviction had not been arrived at for 10 years, and so the verdict came as a surprise to all. Justice moved at a much faster pace in the 1920s than it does today. A first-degree murder conviction carried the death penalty, and the appeal process was usually swift and heavily weighted against the convicted. The electric chair at Rockford State Penitentiary awaited Fragassa, and more than likely his death in it would come soon.
While the young Canonsburg barber was led back to jail, jury selection for the trial of co-defendant Marcantonio Daniele continued. That trial commenced on Monday, Nov. 27, 1922, with every precaution taken to ensure that the jurors had no knowledge of the verdict in the Fragassa trial.
For the most part, the witnesses for the prosecution – including housewife Erminia Orsino and the two Western Pen convicts, Alfonso Polifrone and James Pizzarella – repeated their testimony delivered at the Fragassa trial. Defense attorneys A. Kirk Wrenshall and Alex Templeton were more aggressive, however, and called many witnesses. Perhaps their best was the defendant himself.
In 1914, when Daniele was 25, he left Italy for the United State with his wife, Theresa, and children John and Mary, then 10 and 6, respectively. They settled in Canonsburg in 1917, where Daniele found work in the mills. The family live at 216 Blaine St. in the East End of Canonsburg, two blocks up from the railroad tracks and Chartiers Creek. It was a neighborhood in which almost everyone had come from either Italy or Greece or Poland.
By the time Daniele was being tried for murder, his wife had given birth to three more children: two girls and a boy. He told the jury that in recent years he had earned his living as an importer and salesman for olive oil and cheese.
Daniele “can neither read nor write, but he talks English fairly well,” The Reporter stated. “He was for the most part cool and collected and answered the questions of the counsel without hesitation, but he seemed to become confused on cross examination and made some contradictory statements.”
Daniele vehemently denied the accusations by witnesses Polifrone and Pizzarella that he was the leader of the Black Hand in Canonsburg. He denied any knowledge of the killing of Gabriele Fiore, although admitting to part of the commonwealth’s testimony about being on the street the evening of the murder with his son John and Fragassa. He insisted, however, that he was very drunk and remembered little of what happened that night.
John Daniele, 18, still being held in jail awaiting his own trial for the Fiore murder, took the stand and stated that his father had indeed been drunk and that he had taken him home and put him to bed hours before Fiore was shot. Daniele’s wife and daughter Mary also testified that Daniele was home in bed at the time the commonwealth claimed he was assisting in the murder.
Fragassa, convicted just days earlier, also took the stand, changing his story somewhat and confessing that Fiore’s murder was his sole responsibility and that Daniele had nothing to do with it.
The defense called other witnesses who recalled Daniele being drunk that evening, but the prosecutors countered with Washington County Chief Detective William Dinsmore, who said Daniele seemed perfectly sober when he arrested him at 4 a.m. the morning of May 29. Dinsmore said while he was cuffing the suspect, Daniele said he would kill him once he got out of jail.
The jury began its deliberations late on the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 29, 1922, the day before Thanksgiving. They returned four hours later with a guilty verdict. In those days, the jury was often polled, and each member stood, looked at Daniele and answered, “Guilty of murder in the first degree.”
As he was being led back to the jail, Daniele turned to county detective Bert M. Laird, who had him in charge, and said, “Don’t worry, the Black Hand will get you and John Weiner.” Weiner was another county detective assigned to the case.
Not just words
On Wednesday afternoon, as the jury in the Daniele case was beginning its deliberations, a man believed to be a member of the Black Hand gang in Canonsburg barged into the home of Minnie Orsino on Third Street and Elm Alley. He forced her against a wall, put a revolver to her head and demanded to know why she had testified in the trials.
“I only told the truth,” Minnie said.
“I’m going to kill you,” the man said.
Having heard the disturbance, four of the Orsinos’ boarders entered the room, and the assailant immediately fled. He was believed to be the same man who had been seen loitering near the house and inquiring about Mrs. Orsino before the trials.
After Marcantonio Daniele’s conviction, District Attorney Howard Hughes decided not to bring the younger Daniele to trial due to a lack of evidence. He must have felt at that time, too, that there was little need to do so because his goal had been achieved: He had killed the Black Hand in Canonsburg by severing its head.
Of course, Hughes did not live in East Canonsburg: Minnie Orsino did, and she would have to live in fear of retribution for the rest of her life. She knew that the DA and the local cops could not protect her family. She would need to find a way to do that herself.
The two other main witnesses were slightly safer for the moment, having been returned to their cells at Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. But they would soon be walking targets for the vengeful. Polifrone and Pizzarella had not spilled the secrets of the Black Hand out of civic duty or from the goodness of their hearts; they bargained for reduced sentences. And many believed they were as good as dead the moment they were released from prison.
A fight for their lives
Attorneys for Fragassa and Daniele wasted no time in appealing the verdicts, but on Feb. 5, 1923, Judge Erwin Cummins refused the motions for arrest of judgment and new trials. One week later, Cummins sentenced them to death.
“Daniele maintained the defiant attitude shown by him during his trial last fall,” the Daily Notes reported on the sentencing. “A sneer was plainly discernable on his face.”
In April 1923, the state Supreme Court heard arguments of their appeal, and on June 25 refused to reverse the lower court. After the state pardons board found no reason for clemency, Gov. Gifford Pinchot set their execution for 7 a.m. Oct. 29. But at 11 p.m. Oct. 28, the governor sent word to the warden at Rockford to halt the execution. Two members of the pardon board had told him that the board would reconsider the appeal after learning that Fragassa had confessed total responsibility for Fiore’s murder and insisted Daniele had nothing to do with it.
The last-ditch effort by the defense, now joined by Pittsburgh attorney John F. Robb, might buy their clients another couple weeks of life – enough time to find new evidence or to turn the witnesses who testified against them.
Minnie Orsino had not just the Black Hand to fear. Now, she had their lawyers to worry about.
Next: The Dark Stalker